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French word of the day: Couac

No, this is not what French ducks say*.

French word of the day: Couac
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know couac?

Because you'll often see it written next to politicians' names in the news section, which can be pretty confusing if you're translating it to the English 'quack'.

What does it mean?

Tap couac into Google Translate and you get 'quack' in English. 

However, the Google translation is a bit misleading. In English, 'quack' has two meanings: the harsh, throaty cry of a duck, or a fraudulent person pretending to have skills they do not possess (a charlatan).

In French, however, couac could refer to a 'jarring' or 'false' 'sound' or tone (which could be a duck's quack, depending on whether or not you like the sound ducks make).

But couac is more commonly used to talk about une maladresse, 'a blunder'

Un couac can be an act, a gesture, an event or a statement. Basically it refers to an incident that did not go the way it was meant to, 'a gaffe', 'a hiccup', 'an act of clumsiness'.

But couac is not really the same as une gaffe (a gaffe) or une boulette (a mishap) in French, which refers to the error itself. Couac refers to the event.

Couac is often used about politics, such as when the French government tried to extend the state of health emergency, but didn't have enough MPs present in the parliament.

AFP called it le couac d'hier soir – last night's blunder.


Use it like this

Quel énorme couac ! – What a massive blunder!

Je ne suis pas sûr que c'était un couac, je pense qu'ils tentaient de savoir combien de personnes étaient pour la suggestion. – I'm not sure that it was a mistake, I think they wanted to know how many people were in favour of the suggestion. 

On est au milieu d'une pandemie. Franchement ce n'est pas sérieux tous ces couacs gouvernementaux. – We're in the middle of a pandemic. Frankly all these government hiccups are not OK.


Cacophonie – discord

And if you were wondering what ducks do say in French, it's coin coin.


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For members


French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

This expression is more than just your last order at the boulangerie.

French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

Why do I need to know tarte à la crème ?

Because if someone uses this phrase to describe you, you should probably be a bit offended.

What does it mean?

Tarte à la crème – pronounced tart ah lah krem – literally refers to a cream filled tart, or a custard tart, in English. However, this expression has more to do than just baking. It is another way of describing something that is boring, predictable or commonplace.

This expression comes straight from Moliere himself. In the 17th century, there was a popular rhyming game called “Corbillon.” The phrase “Je vous passe mon corbillon” (I pass you by corbillon) is said, and then it is followed by “Qu’y met-on?” (What does one put on it?) To keep the rhyme up, people must respond with something ending in an -ON sound.

In the play, “L’Ecole des Femmes” (The School of Wives), one character says the ideal woman would respond to the question with “tarte à la crème” which is obviously the wrong answer. The right answer would be tarte à la citron (lemon tart). Molière did this on purpose to poke fun at the fact that disgruntled fans would send poor actors cream tarts to express their frustration.

It was a way of ridiculing his critics and showing he was unimpressed by their method of showing discontentment at his plays. Over time, the phrase went on to describe things that are commonplace or boring. It is often used to describe entertainment related topics, such as books, movies, or plays.

A synonym for this phrase in French might be banal and in English you might say something is ‘vanilla’ to describe something that is fairly unexciting.

Use it like this

Le film était vraiment tarte à la crème. Je ne recommande pas d’aller le voir au cinéma, vous pouvez attendre de le voir une fois qu’il sera gratuit en ligne. – The movie was really boring. I don’t recommend going to see it at the movies, you can simply wait to see it once it is free online.

Je pense que l’album est tarte à la crème. Elle a pris tellement d’idées d’autres artistes que ce n’est vraiment pas original du tout. – I think the album is predictable. She really took plenty of ideas from other artists and it was not original at all.