11 French words and expressions that English-speakers get all wrong

11 French words and expressions that English-speakers get all wrong
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Whether its mixing up body parts or failing to get their tongues around certain sounds, English-speakers do have trouble with certain French phrases. we asked French writer Gwendoline Gauicheau to list the most common mistakes.

1. Cou – cul 

This one (like many) is all about pronunciation. Though both words refer to a body part, one is more suitable for social gatherings than the other.

Cou (with an ‘ou’ sound) is the French word for ‘neck’ and cul (‘u’ sound) is the one for arse. So if you casually want to talk to your colleagues about your neck pains, take your time to think about your cou pronunciation or there might be an awkward silence.  

2. Beaucoup – Beau cul

Many misunderstandings come with the sounds ou and u – which don't really exist as separate noises in English – and this is a particularly common one.

When mistaken beaucoup for beau cul you may also get some strange looks since the first one means ‘many’ and the second ‘nice arse’. So be very careful if you wish the waiter merci beaucoup when he delivers your coffee (unless you do want to compliment him on his shapely behind, of course).



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3. Cul-de-sac – Coup de sac

This one also involves the cul word but when used in the expression cul-de-sac, it’s actually not offensive since it means 'dead end'.

But when you are having trouble making or grasping the sound, it can easily transforms into coup de sac which is way more violent (it implies that someone is going to get hit by a bag).

4. Écureuil – Écrou

The French word for squirrel can seem barbarous when it comes to pronouncing it since it has both the ‘u’ sound and and rolling ‘r’ and figures on most lists of French words that anglophones find particularly tricky.

READ ALSO The nine French words that foreigners never quite pronounce right

Often when native English-speakers try and say it, it comes out a écrou which is another French word that has nothing to do with a cute animal (it means ‘nut’).

5. Oeuf – Ouf  

Oeuf is the word for 'egg' but seeing three vowels at the beginning of the word might confuse your brain and make you say ouf instead.

Though, if you are looking to make an omelette, ouf (which is the verlan for fou – 'crazy'), might not help you. Know that ouf can also mean ‘phew’.

6. Canard – Connard 

One involves an animal and the other is a very rude word.

Canard is the French word for ‘duck’ and you’ll frequently encounter it when looking at menus in restaurants.

But know that if you mix the ‘a’ sound with the ‘o’ one, the waiter might look at you in a weird way since you would have ordered a ‘dickhead'. Likewise, the French driver who has just cut you up on the roundabout is likely to be just amused if you yell 'what a duck' at him.

7. Toute de suite – Toute suite

This one is tricky because, when speaking, French people contract a lot of words of just don’t pronounce every word.

When you hear someone say j’ai besoin de ce livre toute suite (I need this book right now) he is actually saying j’ai besoin de ce livre tout de suite but the de is generally not used when you are speaking.

8. Quand même – Comme même 

Don’t worry if you make this mistake, a lot of French people get that one wrong too. Again, it's pronunciation that makes the real expression complicated to grasp.

Comme même does not mean anything (literally ‘like same’), but quand même is a real expression that mean ‘all the same’ or, when used as an interjection means ‘no kidding’.

9. Tenir au jus – Tenir au jeu

Here also, tenir au jeu just does not make sense (‘keep to the game’) but, to the ear, it's very close to tenir au jus which is a popular expression among the French youth.

If you hear someone say, tu peux me tenir au jus s’il te plait?, it means ‘can you please keep me updated?’

10. Je suis chaude – J’ai chaud 

If you are in France during a heat wave and want to let people know you are too hot, don’t say je suis très chaude because it surely implies you are steamy, but in sexual way. 

In French you used the verb avoir (to have) when you're describing yourself as hot, hungry, thirsty etc. So when the mercury is rising choose j’ai très chaud unless, of course, you are trying to come on to the person you are talking to.  

11. Douche à la chatte – Toilette de chat

This last one is courtesy of the Turning Parisian blog. 

The writer explains that when wanting to use the expression toilette de chat (usually said when you don't have access to a shower but that you are getting a quick wash, generally with no soap) she said she just took a douche à la chatte, which literally means she showered either a female cat or her genitalia.  

Member comments

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  1. This is a rather pretentious unhelpful list. Many people speak with an accent and French people are very much used to guessing by context. No waiter will “look at you in a weird way” if you pronounce canard/beaucoup slightly off.

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