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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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.

The 12 French words that don't mean what you think they do
All photos: AFP

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.

 

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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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