French word of the day: Système D

French word of the day: Système D
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
How to wing it by cobbling something together the French way.

Why do I need to know système D?

Originally made famous in the anglophone world by master chef Anthony Bourdain, this expression is particularly timely right now.

What does it mean?

Système D – ‘system D’ – is a French expression that's often rolled out when things haven't gone entirely to plan. 

The D stands for débrouiller (from the verb se débrouller), which means 'getting about', 'making it work', or simply 'winging it'.


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See also on The Local:

French online dictionary l’Internaute defines système D like this:

Art de se débrouiller dans un domaine avec son ingéniosité et son sens logique, mais sans matériel adéquat ni soutien particulier. – The art of figuring something out by ingenuity and logical sense, but without adequate equipment or particular support.

The D can also be démerder – French colloquial slang for 'winging it' in an adverse situation.

Basically it's the ability to respond to challenges by thinking quickly, adapting and improvising to get a job done.

A great example of système D is, a virologist recently told The Local, the story of the French, the coronavirus crisis and “the infamous lack of masks.” 

France ran out of masks early on in the epidemic and – after the official health advice shifted in favour of everyone wearing some sort of facial protection – has striven to massively increase its production.

Meanwhile, the French have made their own masks. Video tutorials on social media have flourished, showing how you can make face masks out of fabrics you find at home. Got an old bra to spare? Why not transform it into a top notch face mask? Système D. 

(Although we should point out that France's health minister Oliver Véran says that many home-made masks are “useless” because they do not conform to technical standards).

Use it like this

You don't need pandemic restrictions to turn to système D. Bourdain used it about being a Grand Hotel cook in France.

However the expression has become extra pertinent for everyday life in France since the beginning of the lockdown:

Puisque ma salle de sport est fermée, je m'entraîne version système D sur un tapis dans le salon. – Seeing as my gym is closed I'm making it work on a mat in the living room.

On n'a plus de crème fraiche pour les pâtes.. Je suis déjà sorti une fois aujourd'hui – on la fait façon système D avec du yaourt ? – We're out of crème fraiche for the pasta. I've already been out once today – shall we wing it with yoghurt?

Depuis que l'université est fermée on fait des visio sessions système D avec les potes de ma classe pour nous entrainer à l'oral – Since the university closed we're doing virtual crash sessions with my classmates to prepare for next year's oral exam.

Member comments

  1. Is there any way we can hear the French being spoken? Word of the day is so helpful along with its use in context but sometimes to hear is more important than reading.

  2. Google translate has the facility to allow you to hear someone speaking whatever is written on the screen – and it can be repeated until you’re word perfect. I found it extremely useful with sentences in Hungarian!

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