Swords, immortality and wifi: Five things to know about the Academie française

They have made international headlines this week with their pronouncements that Covid-19 is feminine, but just who are the guardians of the French language?

Swords, immortality and wifi: Five things to know about the Academie française
All photos: AFP

There's a lot of research that still needs to be done on the novel coronavirus Covid-19 but one thing that we do know is its gender – at least in French.

The news that French language guardians Academie française had ruled that it is la Covid-19 (but le coronavirus) made headlines around the world and earned an appearance for The Local France's story on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and formed the basis of a joke about Donald Trump (We should have known Covid-19 is female. That explains why Trump doesn't take her seriously.)

READ ALSO Covid-19 is officially feminine, says Academie française

But the fact that France even has an official group whose job it is to decide these things also provoked surprise and some amusement among foreign observers.

So here's what you need to know about the Academie française.

1. They are elected

If you have strong views of the gender of viruses, unfortunately you cannot just rock up and ask to join – members must be invited to join and then elected by their peers.

There are only ever 40 members at one time and people must be judged to have made a contribution to the French language – the membership list is heavy on novelists, poets, playwrights and literary critics, but also includes philosophers, historians, statesman and religious leaders.

You don't need to be French to be a member, however, there are British, Italian and Canadian members.

2. They are immortal

Not really, although membership is for life, but they are known as 'the Immortals'.

The nickname refers to the device on their motto à l’immortalité (to immortality) which actually refers to the French language itself, not the individual members of the Academie.

3. They have swords

As befits an organisation set up by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 and given letters patent by Louis XIII the Academie has a lot of tradition behind it.

Members wear elaborate embroidered uniforms and carry swords.

These are not intended to skewer unwary foreigners who mix up their le and la, however, it's a reference to the might of language – although for women and clergymen the wearing of the sword is optional.

4. They are not keen on English

The Academie's mission, as stated in its charter from Louis XIII, is to give the French language rules that will keep it pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences.

But in recent years they have become increasingly concerned about English, specifically the widespread importing of certain English words into everyday use in France.

As well as coming up with French alternatives for English terms, the Academie released a warning in 2019 saying that the French language was being “repeatedly violated” by an “invasion of Anglo-Saxon terms”.

It warned: “If they do not react vigorously and if public opinion does not take into account the extent of the danger that we are facing, French will then cease to be the living and popular language that we love.”

5. A lot of people ignore them

Although often described as the 'French language guardians' or sometimes 'French language police', the Academie does not actually have the power to compel people to use certain words.

Despite their dire warnings about the use of English terms it's actually pretty common to hear French people – especially younger ones – toss the odd word of English into everyday chat and you will frequently hear a c'est cool or le buzz if you loiter around young French people for long enough.

READ ALSO The 10 English words that will make you sound cool in France

The Academie has also made a concerted effort to push back against the many English tech-related words that have flooded the language, and here again they have been largely unsuccessful.

Probably the most notorious example is the time they tried to replace the simple and catchy le wifi with l'access sans fil à internet (wireless access to the internet).

And if you want to know how that caught on, try asking a French person Avez-vous le code pour l'access sans fil à internet and see if that gets you the wifi password.

Attempts to replace hashtag with mot-dièse, smartphone with mobile multifonction and binge drinking with beuverie express have all been similarly unsuccessful. 

READ ALSO Nine French words that the French just don't use

The below very funny Twitter thread is a reaction to the Academie attempting to come up with a French translation for a Twitter “follower” and sees the author ask for parody French translations of other web/tech related terms.




Member comments

  1. Was it truly necessary to take a cheap shot at Donald Trump? And especially when our President has many women in top roles in his administration? Why must you do this? I am a member and a fan of, but this has caused me to reconsider.

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Everything you need to know about France’s 2022 summer sales

In France, you can only shop the best deals twice a year - during the soldes. Here is everything you need to know about this year's summer sales.

Everything you need to know about France's 2022 summer sales

They happen twice a year – Each year, France has two soldes periods: one in the winter, usually starting January, and another in the summer, usually starting in June.

This summer, the soldes will start on Wednesday, June 22nd in most parts of France and run for four weeks, so even though you might be tempted to go on the first day, keep in mind they’ll be going on for a while.

They are progressive, so items will be continuously marked down as the soldes wear on. If you wait, you are risking that your favourite t-shirt might sell out quickly, but if you’re lucky it might end up marked down even further.

During 2020 and 2021 the government altered sales dates and time periods to help shops cope with closures and lockdowns, but now we’re back to the usual timetable.

This is the only time stores can have “sales” – Technically, the soldes are the only time that stores are allowed to have sales, but the definition of ‘sale’ is important.

Basically, the French government qualifies a ‘solde‘ as the store selling an item for less than they purchased it for.

During the rest of the year discounting is allowed in certain circumstances, so you might see promotions or vente privée (private sales, usually short-term events aimed at regular customers or loyalty-card holders) throughout the year.

In these situations the stores might be selling items for less than their original price, but they are not permitted to sell the item for less than they bought it for. 

Shops are also permitted to have closing-down sales if they are shutting down, or closing temporarily for refurbishment.

They are strictly regulated by the French government – Everything from how long the soldes go for to the consumer protection rules that apply to the very definition of ‘solde’ is regulated by the French government, and the main purpose of this is to protect small independent businesses which might not be able to offer the same level of discounts as the big chains and multi-national companies.

Whether you shop in person or online, the same rules apply.

As a consumer, you still have the same rights as non-sales times regarding broken or malfunctioning items – meaning you ought to be entitled to a refund if the item has not been expressly indicated as faulty. The French term is vice caché, referring to discovering a defect after purchase.

On top of that, stores must be clear about which items are reduced and which are not – and must display the original price on the label as well as the sale price and percentage discount. 

READ MORE: Your consumer rights for French sales

They started in the 19th century – France’s soldes started in the 19th century, alongside the growth of department stores who had the need to regularly renew their stock – and get rid of leftover items.

Simon Mannoury, who founded the first Parisian department store “Petit Saint-Thomas” in 1830, came up with the idea.

Funnily enough, this department store actually is the ancestor for the famous department store Le Bon Marché. His goal was to sell off the previous season’s unsold stock in order to replace it with new products.

In order to do this, Mannoury offered heavy discounts to sell as much merchandise as possible in a limited time.

The soldes start at different times depending on where you live – The sales start at the same time across most of mainland France, but there are exceptions for overseas France and certain départements, usually those along the border.

France’s finance ministry allows for the sales to start at different times based on local economies and tourist seasons. 

For the summer 2022 sales only two parts of metropolitan France have different dates; Alpes-Maritimes sales run from July 6th to August 2nd, while on the island of Corsica they run from July 13th to August 9th.

In France’s overseas territories the sales are held later in the year.

You might qualify for a tax rebate – If you are resident outside the EU, you might be eligible for a tax rebate on your sales purchases.

If you spend at least €100 in one store, then you qualify. You should hold onto your receipt and tell the cashier you plan to use a tax rebate so they can give you the necessary documentation (a duty-free slip).

Then when you are leaving you can find the kiosk at the station or airport dedicated to tax rebates (détaxe) and file prior to leaving France. For more information read HERE