For members


French word of the day: Système D

How to wing it by cobbling something together the French way.

French word of the day: Système D
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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Originally made famous in the anglophone world by master chef Anthony Bourdain, this expression is particularly timely right now.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


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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For members


French Expression of the Day: Robin des bois

He's the legendary Englishman who is surprisingly relevant to French political discourse.

French Expression of the Day: Robin des bois

Why do I need to know Robin des bois?

Because you might be wondering why the French reference this English outlaw during protest movements 

What does it mean?

Robin des bois roughly pronounced roe-bahn day bwah – is the French version of “Robin Hood” – the legendary outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. 

Robin Hood is part of English folklore, with the first references to him occurring sometime during the 13th or 14th century. He did not become Robin des bois for some time – as the legend did not spread to the majority of French people until at least the 18th or 19th century. 

Robin des bois most likely made his big entrance on the French stage in the 19th century when the novel Ivanhoe (1819), which tells tales of medieval England, was translated into French. 

The fabled outlaw was welcomed by the French, particularly romantic writers and thinkers of the time who saw him as a symbol of the fight against the aristocracy. 

But the French had their own versions of Robin Hood before the English legend made its way to l’Hexagone – like the “Louis Mandrin” who supposedly rebelled against corrupt tax collectors during the Ancien Regime. 

Over the years, the French – particularly those on the political left – have evoked “Robin des bois” during strikes and protests, and it’s relatively common to see protest movements or direct action groups name themselves after Robin Hood.

The English outlaw also had his own French television series between 1963 and 1966 – though this time he was called “Thierry La Fronde” and he lived in France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Use it like this

Nous devons nous attaquer aux actions de Robin des Bois afin d’aider la classe ouvrière à payer leurs factures d’énergie, a déclaré le syndicat dans un communiqué de presse. – We must take action like Robin Hood to help the working class pay for their energy bills, the union said in a flyer. 

Le restaurateur était un véritable Robin des Bois – il avait tendance à surfacturer les tables des riches et à sous-facturer celles de la classe populaire. – The restaurant owner was a real Robin Hood – he had a tendency of overcharging tables of rich people and under-charging those of poor folks.