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French word of the day: Mortel

This expression can be a double-edged sword, but chances are the person exclaiming it isn't commenting on their own mortality.

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

Why do I need to know mortel?

Because it's an expression with very different meanings depending on the context and you don't want to confuse them.

What does it mean?

Mortel means mortal, as in nous sommes tous mortels – we're all mortal – means the opposite of being immortel – immortal.

It can also mean fatal or deadly, such as un accident mortel sur l'autoroute – a fatal accident on the motorway.

But if used as an exclamation, mortel can be a way of saying that something is 'really cool' or simply 'amazing'.

Use it like this

C'était comment le concert ? C'était vraiment mortel ! – How was the concert? It was really amazing!

On mange des pizzas ce soir ? Mortel ! – Shall we have pizzas tonight? Awesome!

J'ai croisé Kylian Mbappé hier par hasard au resto, on a fait un selfie, regarde. Wouah, trop mortel ! – I ran into Kylian Mbappe yesterday randomly at the restaurant, we did a selfie, look. Wow, that's mad cool!

There is an English equivalent but it's far more common in Ireland than elsewhere in the anglophone world, so a younger Irish person might say 'you're looking deadly tonight' if someone is looking really good.

Be aware of this..

Mortel as in 'awesome' is however an expression mostly used by young people and it's pretty slangy.

If you're talking to an older French person who tells you something was mortel – especially if they don't sound very enthusiastic  – chances are they are meaning the very opposite.

Mortel can be used to state something is ennuyeux à mort – 'dead boring'.

Quel discours mortel ! – What a boring speech!

C'etait un diner mortel. – It was a deadly boring dinner.


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For members


French Expression of the Day: Une vache à lait

This might sound like the cheese for children, but it actually has nothing to do with dairy products.

French Expression of the Day: Une vache à lait

Why do I need to know une vache à lait ?

Because if someone describes a potential investment opportunity like this, you might want to consider it.

What does it mean?

Une vache à lait – roughly pronounced oon vash ah lay – translates precisely to ‘a cow with milk’ or ‘a dairy cow.’ However, this phrase has little to do with farming, cheese, or milk.

In practice, une vache à lait is almost synonymous with the English term “cash cow” – or something or someone that is a moneymaker or source of profit. 

The phrase in French comes from the middle of the 16th century and evokes an image of a cow who is being milked without protest, allowing for the farmer to profit off of it. It was gradually extended to people and business ventures as a way of talking about profitability. 

Sometimes, this expression can have a negative connotation, particularly if a person is being called a vache à lait. This would be akin to saying that they are being financially exploited without realising it. 

Use it like this

L’achat de Snapchat a été une vache à lait pour Mark Zuckerberg et Facebook. – The purchase of Snapchat was a moneymaker for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Les parents ont été accusés d’utiliser leur enfant comme une vache à lait en l’inscrivant à des publicités. Ils ont trouvé cette accusation offensante. – The parents were accused of using their child as a cash cow by signing them up for commercials. They found this accusation offensive.