The 29 French words and phrases we’ve learned during a year-long health crisis

The 29 French words and phrases we've learned during a year-long health crisis
During lockdown, les applaudissements des balcons (balcony applauses) were a nightly feature. Photo: AFP
From intricate bureaucratic and medical vocab to the terms needed once drinking and dating move online, here's some of the French words and phrases that we have learned during the last year.

Reconfinement – The ‘re’ prefix is incredibly useful in the French language as it can be added to create a completely new word to indicate repetition. Throughout the past 12 months we’ve moved from confinement (lockdown) to déconfinement (loosening lockdown) and unfortunately reconfinement (going back into lockdown). But at least we’ve had a neat construction to describe all the changes.

Couvre-feu – curfew. Before 2020 this word was generally only used in historic or military contexts, but the imposition of a couvre-feu 18h (6pm curfew) has brought it into everyday chat.

Troisième vague – third wave. As well as the literal waves on the beach, vague can also be used to describe a wave of cases, with France now facing the possibility of a third wave.

Bon courage – A general well-wishing expression used a lot by the French. There is no exact English equivalent but is often used to wish people luck in some ordeal or difficulty. However, rather than depending on purely external factors, it implies that success will be due to the person’s strength.

READ ALSO C’est bon – why everything is good when you’re speaking French 

Réa – Short for réanimation (intensive care), you may seen headlines talking about les patients de Covid-19 rempliront les réas – Covid-19 patients are filling up intensive care units.

Taux – rate. Over a year in which seemingly everyone turned into a scientist, there has been much discussion of data around the pandemic including taux d’incidence (the incidence rate or cases per 100,000 people). Taux works for any kind of rates though, such as taux d’intérêt (interest rates).

Cluster – Borrowed from the English, this term has been used from the beginning of the epidemic to talk about the infection outbreaks. You may also hear about foyers de contamination.

Geste barrière – Literally ‘barrier gesture’, it refers to all those habits and social distancing measures that we’ve had to get used to to protect ourselves and others: wearing a mask, sneezing into your elbow, washing hands regularly, etc. If you’re really bored in lockdown/curfew you can watch a speech by the health minister and take a drink every time he mentions les gestes barrières – a quick way to end up drunk.

Protocole sanitaire – Most establishments such as schools and shops have had to follow a protocole sanitaire (health protocol) to stop the transmission of the virus.

La situation sanitaire – the health situation. A catch-all term to express everything that is going on right now. Also increasingly adopted by fonctionnaires to explain why they cannot possibly process your request – C’est compliqué à cause de la situation sanitaire

Déplacement – Movement or trip. During lockdown most trips are forbidden unless they are essential or justified with an attestation (see below) and the same applies to trips out after curfew.

TousAntiCovid –  This is the contact-tracing app, previously named StopCovid, that the government relaunched in October. Aside from using Bluetooth to alert those who have come in contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus, it also provides basic information on symptoms, case numbers and where you can get tested as well as a downloadable version of the aforementioned attestation.

Attestation – certificate. This word – already crucial to France’s true religion of bureaucracy – has become central to everyday life. Une attestation de déplacement dérogatoire is needed for every trip outside the house during lockdown or after curfew with une attestation de déplacement international is needed for trips to certain countries.

The word is commonly used in other situations though, une attestation du travail proves that you are in work while une attestation de domicile is proof of where you live.

READ ALSO This is the vocabulary you need to fill in French forms

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Demeurant – residing. The attestation form required during lockdown has introduced us to some rather formal French vocabulary including demeurant. It simply means where you live, so if you see it on a form, write in your address.

Déclaration sur l’honneur – affidavit. The attestation form does not require any supporting proof, so it is relying on you to tell the truth about where you are going. However the fact that you declare it is true and sign it makes it a déclaration sur l’honneur (declaration on your honour, more usually translated as an affadavit) which gives it a legal standing.

READ ALSO What does it mean when you ‘declare on your honour’ in France?

Amende – a fine. If you get any of France’s complicated health rules wrong you are liable to une amende de €135 – a €135 fine. Likewise you will sometimes hear il a été verbalisé  – which although it sounds like he received a simple ticking off actually means he has been fined. 

Télétravail – remote working, or working from home. Everyone in France who can is asked to télétravail. Any dedicated employee will tell you is absolutely not the same as pretending to work while lolling around watching daytime telly.

Dépistage – testing or screening. France currently runs a massive, and free, Covid testing programme but this word applies to any kind of medical test or screening.

Personnes vulnérables – ‘vulnerable persons’ are elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that make them at risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus. They are also known as les personnes fragiles.

Non-respect du confinement – breaking lockdown rules. You will sometimes also see violation du confinement which means the same thing.

Grosse balance – a massive snitch. If you spot people failing to respect the rules, you could report rule-breakers to the police. But you run the risk of being denounced as a grass if so. Balancer is the verb used for denouncing or exposing someone – as in balance ton porc (expose your pig) which is the equivalent of the Me Too hashtag in France. So if you suspect someone of sneaking, you could say tu es une grosse balance – you’re a big snitch.

Les proches – loved ones. If somebody has died you will frequently hear mes sincères condoléances aux familles et aux proches – my sincere condolences to the families and loved ones. Proche literally means close so in this content it means ‘those close to’ but better translates as loved ones. Over this year we have seen a lot of advice on most people’s main concern comment garder contact avec vos proches – how to keep in touch with your loved ones.

Apéro – pre-dinner drinks. Another great French love is the apéritif or pre-dinner drinks ritual. During the lockdowns and later curfew it has moved online so you may be lucky enough to be invited to apéro Skype or apéro Zoom. In a testament to how important it is, a major French supermarket offered un panier apéro (an apéro basket, containing beer or wine, cheese and hummus) in a one-hour home delivery.

READ ALSO Apéro Skype time? France’s evening drinks ritual for the lockdown age

Rester en forme – stay fit/in shape. While the Germans cheerfully coined a word to describe the weight gained during lockdown (coronaspeck – corona lard) the French media saw a proliferation of articles on how to restez chez vous, rester en forme – stay home but stay in shape.

PQ – toilet roll. There’s nothing like the looming threat of a shortage to make you appreciate the importance of toilet roll, and while France didn’t see anything like the levels of panic buying of the UK or Australia, plenty of people took the opportunity to stock up. Toilet paper in French is papier toilette, but a more slangy version is papier cul (ass paper) often shortened to PQ.

Les sextos – dating has became slightly tricky so many French people resorted to technology-based courting rituals instead. You will hear either le sexting or les sextos for the practice of sending saucy snaps by text message or other messaging platforms. 

Râler – to grumble. There’s been plenty to complain about this year and fortunately French has a lot of words for complaining including the formal se plaindre which is the most frequently used, but you also have rouspéter,  ronchonner, grommeler, grogner and maugréer which are variously equivalent of to moan, to grouse, to grumble or to bitch. 

C’est le bordel – this is a disaster/fucked up situation. If you really want to vent your feelings about, for example, France’s slow vaccine rollout, you could say – les vaccins, quel bordel !

Putain – yes, we know we include this in virtually every language article we write, but that’s because it’s such an amazingly versatile word that adds so much to almost all situations in French life. From softly sighing Oh putain – oh fuck – when it’s 5.50pm and you’ve just seen the length of the queue outside the boulangerie to screaming Putain de bordel de merde – ta gueule! at the neighbour who has decided that the long curfew evenings are the perfect time to take up playing the trumpet.

READ ALSO An ode to the greatest French swearword


Member comments

  1. Here I am, trying to scan as quickly as poss, and you give a translation for shut the fuck up. Now laughing so much you’re seriously holding up the rest of my day’s mental filing process :))
    Hope your neighbours aren’t tooo bad.

  2. Has the French Government told us yet how to obtain the new Attestation.? The lockdown starts tonight yet there is no news! Is it a paper one or can it be downloaded to your phone as before. Thanks

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