Nine French phrases that English really should have too

Nine French phrases that English really should have too
Contemplating this as you stroll aimlessly? There's a word for that in French. Photo: AFP
There are always going to be words and phrases that don't translate exactly between languages, but French also has some excellent phrases that describe quite common situations, and yet have no English equivalent. We reckon it's time for the English language to pull its socks up!

German is probably the language that first comes to mind for handy words for concepts like schadenfruede, but French has a few little gems of its own.

Here are some of them

That staircase moment has happened to us all. Photo: AFP

1. Esprit d'escalier

Definitely something that everybody has needed at least once in their life. It's that moment when, 20 minutes after the argument has finished, you think of the absolute perfect zinger of a comeback that would have decisively won you the argument and made you look extremely cool into the bargain. But by then it's too late and the only thing more pathetic that losing an argument, is running after them when it's finished to tell them your perfect comeback.

That moment is esprit d'escalier and it's one of life's most infuriating things.

It's said to have been coined by the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who obviously wasn't as quick witted as he would have liked, and refers to the architecture of most Paris buildings where you leave by going downstairs from an apartment or salon, so the answer comes to you as you walk away down the stairs, giving you the literal translation 'spirit of the staircase'.

It's a mystery where there has never been an English equivalent – maybe the French place higher value on a pithy comeback?

2. Chanter en yaourt

Singing in yoghurt is not something that should be attempted literally – not without access to a shower, anyway, but it's something that most people will have done at one point or another.

It describes making an effort to sing along with something, probably because everyone around you is singing and you don't want to stand out, but without actually knowing the words. So instead you make a series of vague noises that you hope will blend in with what everyone else is singing.

Maybe a little more common in France thanks to the preponderance of pop songs in English, but certainly not unknown in the UK, as this clip from 1993 shows.

Conservative politician John Redwood attempts to sing along to the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) while quite obviously knowing none of the words and only having a fairly vague idea of the tune.



3. Ras-le-bol

This is often translated into English as fed up, but it's more than that. Literally translating as a 'full bowl' it's a sense of general gloom, despondency and anger when something is just too much to tolerate any more.

You can use it specifically – J'en ai ras-le-bol de l'école! (I'm fed up of school) or in a more general sense, such as the news headline “C'est le ras-le-bol general!”: tout un service de police se met en arrêt maladie pour protester”.

In that context (a whole French police department going on sick leave as a protest) there is a “ras-le-bol general” a general sense of anger or gloom.

As French people are in general perhaps less reserved than their Anglo counterparts at expressing their discontent, you will often see the phrase on banners during strikes, to describe how people are completely fed up with something.

And as a distinctive phrase it can also be easily cannibalised, such as in the Twitter account ras le scoot, in which people who are sick of inconsiderate scooter drivers post photos and video.

Maybe non French people need to up their general outrage before they can score a harder phrase than the rather wimpy 'fed up'?


4. Entarter

Perhaps not an everyday part of everyone's life, but this French verb means to throw a pie at someone, or smash a custard pie in their face.

For example – Je me suis fait entarter – Someone threw a pie at me/I've been custard pie-ed.

There's a fine French farce tradition which maybe makes this more popular in France, but over the years it's been a fairly regular feature on political campaigns, not to mention a mainstay of comedy classics like Laurel and Hardy. Maybe they should have thought up a verb for it while making the film?

5. Flâneur 

A word with a distinctly Parisian twist this is usually translated into English as a loafer or a stroller, but neither really do justice to this activity.

A flâneur is someone going for a stroll, taking in the sights and sounds of the streets and possibly having some elevated thoughts as they do it. It has a sense of sophistication, possibly even intellectualism, as it originated in the 19th century when only the monied classes had the leisure time to take aimless strolls.

If you are walking round to the corner shop to buy toilet cleaner, you are not a flâneur.

If however, you are taking an aimless stroll along the banks of the Seine, contemplating the historic architecture and the transience of all human experience then you've nailed it.

As the spelling shows, a flâneur was traditionally always male, and the word also carries a slight sense that you might also be checking out the ladies and even moving on to a seduction if the mood takes you. More recently there has been a female version coined – flâneuse – but it's yet to really take off.

If this is your kind of activity you could also be a boulevardier – someone who wanders the boulevards.

Beatrice Dalle, very attractive but not conventionally beautiful. Photo: AFP

6. Jolie-laide

This translates as 'pretty-ugly' but it means someone, almost always a woman, who is not conventionally beautiful but is still very attractive.

French actress Beatrice Dalle is often cited as an example of this – a very sexy and charismatic woman, despite her unusual features and gappy teeth.

Some argue that this shows a French disregard for the conventional standards of beauty, with others say it is still a patronising term based on assessing a woman through her appearance alone. We'll gently tiptoe away from that debate, while recognising that the phrase itself can be a useful to describe many things that defy conventional notions of beauty or ugliness.

7. La douleur exquise

This really just means unrequited love but in French it's a) more poetic and b) really conveys the gut-wrenching pain of loving someone while knowing that they will never love you back. Literally translated as 'the exquisite pain' it conveys the heartbreak of an unreciprocated passion so much better than the English alternatives like 'the friend zone'.

Quel est le problème avec Marie? Jean-Paul l’a rejété. Ah, la douleur exquise – What's the matter with Marie? Jean-Paul rejected her. Ah, unrequited love.

8. L'appel du vide

Ever sat or stood somewhere high and felt an overwhelming feeling that you might jump? Even though you obviously never intend to jump, the edge holds a strange fascination, a call you might say.

The 'call of the void' can be used more generally to describe the urge to engage in self destructive behaviour during everyday life, but it's only ever an urge, not something acted upon. 

As-tu déjà ressenti l'envie de traiter ton patron de connard chauve et de partir? Bien sûr, nous ressentons tous l'appel du vide de temps en temps – Have you ever felt the urge to tell your boss he's a balding dickhead and then just walk out? Of course, we all feel the call of the void from time to time. 

Don't waste time with complicated explanations of your lateness, just wave it all away with the catch-all French excuse. Photo: AFP

9. Empêchement

Not the same as what the US president is facing (French newspapers are generally translating impeachment as the rather dramatic sounding destitution) empêchement is an extremely handy phrase if you're running very late.

It's basically a get-out-of-jail-free card for any kind of lateness, which you can simply explain away as being down to empêchement, or an unexpected last-minute change of plans.

Suitably vague, it saves hours in thinking of complicated excuses, or being caught out on your claim that the Metro isn't running by someone who just arrived on the same line. Maybe the closest English equivalent is the British politician excusing himself with the phrase 'events, dear boy'.

Often attributed to former PM Harold Macmillan it's never actually been reliably authenticated to anybody, which just goes to show how much English speakers need an empêchement.

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