The 12 French words that don’t mean what you think they do

The 12 French words that don't mean what you think they do
All photos: AFP
French is a richly creative and poetic language, which is why so many people love it. But it also has a lot of words and phrases that absolutely do not mean what they appear to. Here are some of the more common traps for unwary foreigners.

Most of these phrases have fairly simple vocabulary, so at first glance it seems pretty obvious what they mean. However what they actually mean is something very different and sometimes the total opposite of what the individual words suggest.

1. Barbe à papa – beloved of children the world over, this pink fluffy creation is variously described as candy floss, cotton candy or fairy floss in English-speaking countries. What it absolutely is not is what the French phrase suggests – dad's beard. Exactly how it got this name in France is a bit of a mystery with most dictionaries only saying 'because it resembles a beard'. If you say so, France.

But it seems like the French are pretty fond of the poetic phrase too, because it was the title of a popular series of children's books and later a TV series featuring vaguely candy-floss shaped creatures named barbapapa, barbamama etc.

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2. Chauve-souris – as any French-learning school pupil will tell you, une souris is a mouse and as any middle-aged-man will tell you, chauve means bald. But a chauve-souris is not a household pet that has suffered an unfortunate accident, it is in fact a bat. 

3. Sourire du plombier – in French un sourire is a smile and un plombier is very similar to its English equivalent – a plumber. And while we've met plenty of cheery plumbers, they're not the ones who inspired this expression. Instead it's more equivalent to a 'builder's bum' in English – it's the stripe of your underwear visible above trousers when you bend or kneel, along with the occasional flash of buttock.

In fact in France it's even inspired its own brand of underwear, so you can show off your sourire du plombier undergarments when you bend over.



4. Couvre-feu – composed from the verb couvrir – to cover – and fire or light, this suggests some kind of military tactic and in fact it can be used in a military context as the signal for 'lights out'.

Its far more common usage, however, is a curfew. So if someone tells you that la mairie a imposé un couvre-feu dans la lutte contre le covid-19 then you don't need to hunt out your camouflage gear and rifle, just stay home during the assigned hours of the curfew.

5. Main d'œuvre – this sounds like it would mean either something handmade or possibly a tasty pre-meal snack if your mind wanders to hors d'œuvre. In fact it means the workforce or sometimes manual labour, referring in either case to the 'hand behind the work' ie the employees who do the actual hard graft.

6. Croche-pied – this literally means 'hook-foot' which sounds like something that Medieval peasants might have suffered from.

And although there probably was a bit of this going on in the Middle Ages it's a very modern phenomenon too – it means to trip someone up. Handy for football fans, where you might shout L'arbitre est aveugle ou quoi ? On lui a fait un gros croche-pied! – Is the referee blind or what? That was a blatant trip! 

7. Enterrement de vie de jeune fille – this sounds like the bleakest sort of tragedy, the funeral of the life of a young woman.

But in fact it's for a much jollier occasion – what in English we call a hen do or a bachelorette party, the night out with her mates that a woman has before getting married. The funeral or burial is supposed to refer to her saying goodbye to her previous life as a single woman (although some of these nights out can get pretty rowdy so anything might happen). As it's a long phrase, the French often shorten it to EVJF, just so you know what you're RSVPing to.

And yes, the male equivalent for the stag do or bachelor party is enterrement de vie de garçon.


8. Poudre aux yeux – eye powder might sound like a type of make-up (actually eye shadow is le fard à paupières) but is in fact to do with politics.

It means spin or giving something a positive gloss and comes from a medieval expression jeter de la poudre aux yeux meaning to try and dazzle someone with an illusory glow.

9. Pourboire – this one sort of does make sense when you think about it, but it's not immediately obvious. It's really two words pour boire – for drink – and it's the French word for a tip. So if you're in a bar or restaurant you might leave a bit of extra money so your server can buy themselves a drink. 

READ ALSO How much should you tip in France

10. Coup de soleil – this one is at least related to le soleil – the sun. Coup means a blow or a punch, but in this sense it's not a literal 'hit of sun' but is in fact sunburn.

It's one of approximately a million French phrases which involve the word coup and have meanings as diverse as a punch, a drink and a helping hand.

11. Péter le feu – the verb péter means to fart (although it also has a secondary meaning of to burst or to explode) and as we know le feu is the fire. So this phrase means 'farting fire' – but not literally. It's a phrase used by or about older people to signify that they are still lively and in rude health – it's the French equivalent of to be 'firing on all four cylinders' but more fun.

12. Poule mouillée – this translates as a 'wet hen' with une poule meaning a hen or chicken when it's alive – by the time it gets to your plate it's le poulet – and mouilée meaning wet or damp. Ma poule – my hen – is a common term of affection but being called a wet hen is something else entirely – it means you are a coward, a wimp, a sissy or a wuss.

READ ALSO 15 of the best French terms of endearment

And all this is before we even get to the many phrases, expressions and proverbs that need a bit of explaining to non-Frenchies.

Still, the English language has more than a few of these to baffle foreigners with, as anyone who has tried to explain their favourite dish of crapaud dans le trou will know.

READ ALSO 15 everyday French expressions inspired by animals

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