Whether they're just too hard to pronounce, make no sense or herald impending doom, there are some French words that I don't think I will ever grow to love.
There seem to be approximately a million phrases in the French language which involve the word coup and they all mean completely different things. When we recently ran a list of the 11 most popular coup phrases and asked for suggestions on some others, we received almost 100 responses with different phrases.
So if the person you are talking to is mumbling or gabbling and you miss the crucial word after coup de you have no idea if they are talking about a helping hand, a punch in the face, true love or one of the many other options.
And it might mean nothing at all, as French people frequently pepper their sentences with du coup in the same way that some English speakers add the word like at a random point in their, like, sentence.
2. En raison de
This is actually a perfectly innocuous phrase telling you why something is happening, but it's used a lot in official contexts and by companies and generally signals that some very bad news is coming your way.
Any public transport user's heart sinks when hearing this as you're generally about to be informed that all trains are cancelled and you had better get your walking shoes on.
Likewise if someone uses the phrase en raison de la situation sanitaire (because of the health situation) they're almost certainly not going to tell you that you're due a pay rise or that there's no need to fill in any extra forms.
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— Ligne 11 RATP (@Ligne11_RATP) August 20, 2020
I'm always careful with my keys, but especially so in France, as I know that if I accidentally lock myself out then there's no way I would be able to summon a locksmith, since I find it impossible to wrap my tongue around all the rolling rs in this word.
At least I'm not alone here, the word features on most lists of French words that anglophones find very tricky – maybe we can introduce homme aux cléfs as an alternative?
The key shop poses a particular challenge for non-native speakers. Photo: AFP
This is not exactly an original observation, but France's numbers really are crazy and for those among us who are slightly mathematically challenged having to multiply 20 by 4 then add 15 every time we fill up the car with petrol or talk about Paris suburbs really does not make life easy.
Controversially for a France-lover, I'm on the side of Belgium and Switzerland here, both of whom have introduced a simplified numbering system with new words for seventy, eighty and ninety.
5. Vingt-et-une heures
Likewise the widespread use of the 24-hour clock in everyday language is a counting challenge for someone who grew up within the am/pm system.
It makes total sense to use it for trains and planes, but when someone starts talking to me about meeting at vingt-heure trente I'm frantically trying to remember if 20 o'clock is 8pm or 9pm. We're not in the military, what's wrong with just saying à huit heures ce soir?
This is a French word that seems to have been a little hijacked, since its dictionary definition is “any conception that gives precedence to the organisation of society into communities over the requirement of assimilation of individuals according to equivalent rules and models for all”.
While that sounds fair enough, and it is still used with its original meaning in plenty of serious discussions around the French tradition of laîcité, the word itself seems to be most often used by people to object to movements like Black Lives Matter – slightly ignoring the fact that all these movements are asking for is 'equivalent rules and models for all'.
It has become the French equivalent of sneering 'identity politics' at anyone who dares to point out discrimination against a certain group and is frequently found in the mouths and the tweets of some fairly loathesome individuals.
?? Excellente réaction de Marine Le Pen sur la tribune de Darmanin qui veut « éviter la guerre civile ».
— Génération Bleu Marine ?? (@GBleuMarine_off) August 17, 2020
Wikipedia informs me that this is a charming town in north east France with a cathedral so good that it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Sadly that is as near as I will get to it for the moment since I'm not going until I can figure out how to say it, and the various French people that I've asked don't seem to be totally sure either.
I can definitely say it's not pronounced 'reems'.
8. Brewdog Punk
You would think that English words would pose no problem – but do you pronounce them as you would say it and risk people not understanding you or do you go for a French pronunciation and end up sounding like a character from 'Allo 'Allo?
This is very common among tech items and if you're drinking in one of the increasing numbers of craft ale bars in French cities you will likely encounter this problem, which gets worse as you try to order your third pint of 'le Surfing Walrus IPA, s'il vous plaît'
There's also the issue of whether it is exactly the same word or not – so LED as in 'light emitting diodes' is the same word in France but said 'led' rather than L-E-D but Apple products are pronounced 'eye-phone' not 'ee-phone' as you would expect in French.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of this word in English but there is definitely a time and a place for it. However French people frequently drop it randomly into conversation without having any idea how strong it is. I once saw a French boy who was probably about 13 walking down the street in a T-shirt saying' Wanna f*ck?'. Inappropriate.
I find it particularly baffling since French has the absolutely majestic word putain, which can be used in virtually any situation (OK maybe not job interviews or confession) and is even better than fuck. Go figure.
But I should stress that I love 99.9 percent of French words, greatly enjoy the sheer poetry of the language and always like to learn new phrases (especially rude ones).
And at least I'm not the kind of unreasonable weirdo who takes the cheery greeting coucou as a declaration of war . . .