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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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.

11 French words and expressions that English-speakers get all wrong
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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).

 

 

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

  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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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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