10 French phrases that English really should have too

Some French words and phrases cause a translation crisis because they have no exact equivalent in the English language. Here are some of our favourites that English really should have too.

10 French phrases that English really should have too
Some French concepts like 'emmerder' are hard to translate. Photo: François Lo Presti/AFP

1 Emmerder

This word caused a translation crisis in Anglo newsrooms when president Emmanuel Macron said Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. 

Headlines in English-language publications ranged from ‘hassle the unvaccinated’ to ‘inconvenience’, ‘get on the nerves’, ‘piss off’ and ‘put in the shit’.

The problem was that there is no exact translation that really covers what Macron wanted to do.

Emmerder can be used in a straightforward way as being annoying – Tu m’emmerdes ! – You’re really pissing me off!

But is also carries a sense of making life difficult for someone, more akin to ‘putting them in the shit’ (which is the most literal translation of the word). 

Macron was talking about the use of the vaccine pass in France, which will make everyday life inconvenient – but not impossible – for unvaccinated people by making them unable to visit bars, cafés, leisure centres and various other pleasurable venues. He wanted to make their life inconvenient and annoying (in order to pressure them into getting vaccinated).

There’s also the perennial problem of translating vulgar or swearwords to give a sense of exactly how strong they are – emmerder is vulgar and mildly offensive, so unusual (although not unknown) for a president, but not truly profane. Which is why many publications including The Local opted for the similar-strength phrase ‘piss off’.

But ultimately English doesn’t have an exact translation for ‘to piss someone off by making their life difficult’.

Which is strange, since everyone has enemies whom they may wish to inconvenience. 

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

2 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?

3 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.


4 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’?


5 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?

6 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

7 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.

8 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.

9 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

10 Empêchement

Not the same as what US presidents occasionally face (French newspapers generally translate 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.

Member comments

  1. You say that “l’esprit d’escalier” should be translated as “spirit of the staircase”, but in this case “esprit” means “wit”, so it should be translated as “staircase wit”.

  2. Brilliant!
    Informative, useful – and very entertaining…
    Many thanks for this and all the others, Emma; keep up the good work!
    Tony P

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France to launch ’emergency’ English learning plan for schools

More bilingual schools, a language voice assistant, and funding for study trips - here is how France plans to prioritise learning English in its schools.

France to launch 'emergency' English learning plan for schools

As students in France head back to the classrooms for the 2022-2023 school year, Education Minister Pap Ndiaye has announced a series of plans to address shortcomings in the French education system. One of his top priorities: increasing English-language learning.

The idea that France needs to step up its English abilities is not new. In years past, France has been at the bottom of the European class in regard to its English skills. The country as a whole has been improving, in 2021 France ranked 24 out of 35 European countries, up from 28 in 2020 and 31 in 2019.

That being said, France still lags significantly behind the Scandinavian countries and falls behind its neighbours Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. 

French schools are required to teach a foreign language to students, and instruction should begin the second year of primary school. While that language does not have to be English, the goal is that by the end of middle school, students should have an A2 level in a foreign language.

Edouard Geffray, the director general of school education for France, works alongside Ndiaye. He told The Local that all French students learn some English in primary school, and the majority take English as one of their two foreign languages in secondary school. Thus, English was the “common-denominator language” to focus on for improving.

“It was the only language to test the levels of all students [in France],” explained Geffray. “The quasi-totality of French students study English, and every middle school in France offers English courses.”

Yet by the end of troisième (age 14-15), one out of two students studying English failed to reach the A2 level in the spring of 2022. The testing demonstrated the results of 800,000 students in France – representing “the majority of 14-15 year olds in France,” according to Geffray.

In response, Ndiaye announced the ’emergency plan,’ with the goal that 80 percent of students will reach the A2 level within the next three years. While English is the first focus, Geffray explained that the education ministry would like to see improvement in other foreign languages as well.

Ndiaye intends for English-language classes to take up more instruction time. Thus, the creation of bilingual schools has been encouraged, particularly in primary schools. As of 2021, approximately 238,000 students (from 1,900 schools) in France were already benefiting from “a reinforced curriculum in a foreign language” – with the vast majority of these bilingual schools being English or German. 

For schools that have already volunteered to become bilingual, Nidaye has encouraged them to bring up English language instruction time from just three hours a week to half of all total instruction time.

READ MORE: How France is (slowly) improving its English-language skills

The Paris school district has already begun to take steps in this direction. Ahead of Fall 2022, the academy increased the number of bilingual public schools from 20 to 32.

The Paris academy hopes that all arrondisements will be concerned, and that creating more bilingual schools will help decrease the decline of students in the city by making public school more attractive. Paris public bilingual schools represent just under five percent of the total 750 schools in the district.

Another requirement of the ’emergency’ plan is to have students meet ‘annual progress benchmarks’ for English from first grade through middle school – something they already have to do for French and maths courses. 

The education system also plans to create a dedicated voice assistant to aid in teaching English to primary school students. An example of one such voice assistant is ‘Captain Kelly.’ It assists the teacher in conducting English language activities to build students’ lexical and syntactic knowledge and train their comprehension and pronunciation in English.

Geffray explained that this will be made available to each local district, and it will be up to them as to whether they will purchase the device for their schools.

Intended for primary school students, the voice assistant helps children practice short and varied activities, as shown above, which were designed by English language teaching specialists and school teachers.

Finally, the French ministry of education also announced that it plans to finance more educational trips abroad for students. Geffray explained that the goal is to increase scholastic trips for students of all age groups.

These will primarily be part of the Erasmus + program, so trips abroad would be within the EU – for English-learning, that would mean more trips to Ireland. 

Geffray added that another option for students to go abroad will be during high school as part of the first year of “general and technological high school.” These students will have the ability to spend four weeks in Europe that would be credited within the baccalaureate. 

France continues to face a teacher shortage, particularly with respect to foreign language instruction. For English-language instruction specifically, French schools have struggled to find English teachers since Brexit