French word of the day: Main-d’œuvre

French word of the day: Main-d'œuvre
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Don't confuse this with a yummy dish or a handmade piece of art.

Why do I need to know main-d'œuvre?

Because there are several versions of œuvre in the French language, but they mean very different things.

What does it mean?

Many English speakers will be familiar with hors d'œuvres, the term used to describe the small dishes ('nibbles', if you will) served with the apértif before a meal. 

Take out the hors and you have just œuvre, which means 'piece of work', usually an artistic work such as a collection of poetry, a novel or an œuvre d'art (artwork).

You could therefore be forgiven to think that main-d'œuvre means a 'handmade' something, seeing as main is French for 'hand'.

It's not far out, main-d'œuvre means for 'workers' or 'workforce', and the term itself refers to 'the hands behind the work'.

It's a common French expression that today is mostly used to describe 'manual labour'. Sometimes it is even contrasted with cerveau-d'œuvre, a newer concept that means 'intellectual work' or basically anything that you can do at a desk.

You will spot main-d'œuvre in French headlines and news articles, so it's good to know that the meaning depends on the context. Sometimes it can refer to 'manpower', other times 'manual labour' or just 'workers' or a company's workforce.


De la main d'œuvre au cerveau d’œuvre – From manual labour to intellectual labour.

Kylian, 18 ans, un bac techno en poche : « à un mois de la rentrée, les professionnels ne savent pas s’ils auront besoin de main-d’œuvre – Kylian, 18 years old, has a technical high school degree: “One month before the holiday is over businesses don't know whether they'll need manpower”


Dans un pays qui vieillit et où la pénurie de main-d’œuvre est chronique, le recours à des travailleurs étrangers ne fait pas débat. – In an aging country chronically lacking of workers, turning to foreign manpower is not spurring a debate.



Ouvriers – workers

Travailleurs – workers

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