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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: Mettre en veilleuse

While it might look like this expression has to do with old-age, it does not.

French Expression of the Day: Mettre en veilleuse

Why do I need to know mettre en veilleuse ?

Because this phrase might look easily understandable at first glance, but it probably means something different than you might have expected.

What does it mean?

Mettre en veilleuse – roughly pronounced met-ruh ahn vay-yuhz – translates to “put on the small lamp.” 

However, the expression actually means something that is no longer a priority or is not going to happen imminently  – it’s similar to “put something on the backburner” or to “put something on hold” or “on standby” or (in Ireland) “put it on the long finger”.

A veilleuse is French for nightlight, or a small lamp one might put in the bedroom that stays on at a low brightness, but does not impede one from sleeping.

The expression, thus, was born from the idea that the light is almost in idle mode – available in the background, but not too noticeable. 

If directed at a person, this expression can be a way of telling them to be quiet or lower their town – to become less conspicuous. When used in this way, the phrase is more of an insult, so context is important when using mettre en veilleuse.

You might also see this phrase being used in French politics, if a person or subject has been put on the back burner, that means they were deliberately taken out of the limelight.

Use it like this

Ce n’était pas sa priorité, elle l’a donc mis en veilleuse pour le faire quand elle aurait du temps libre. – It was not her top priority, so she put it on the back burner to do when she had free time.

Le parti politique a déclaré qu’il avait des affaires plus urgentes à traiter, et a donc mis les questions des électeurs en veilleuse. – The political party claimed they had more pressing matters to attend to, so they put the voters’ questions on the back burner.