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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

‘Beautiful butts and condom-free baguettes’: Readers in France reveal their embarrassing French mistakes

Learning French is a challenge and we all make mistakes, but some are more mortifying than others.

'Beautiful butts and condom-free baguettes': Readers in France reveal their embarrassing French mistakes
Photo: Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition and Simon Godfrey on Unsplash

From faux amis (false friends) to words that, to a foreign ear, sound exactly the same but mean something completely different, the French language is full of traps to fall into.

Because it's nice to know that everyone gets their tongue twisted from time to time when trying to learn French – and because the mistakes are sometimes hilarious – we asked our readers to tell us about their most embarrassing French errors.

Here's what they came up with.

'Nice arse'

Evan O'Connel, who originally came up with the idea in a thread he posted on Twitter, said his French teacher used to tell him off for pronouncing merci beaucoup (thank you very much) as merci beau cul (thank you, beautiful arse).

 

Turns out, O'Connell was not alone. Several others testified to having unwittingly complimented butts when aiming for a polite 'thank you'.

 

However, that one was far from the most shameful one on the list.

'I like that it's condom-free'

Moving up a notch of shame, one recurrent mistake was committed by several of our readers, including Connie Regan's mother.

Commenting on our Facebook post, Regan said: “My mother, while waiting for a bus in France, told a stranger how much she likes French bread parce qu’il n’y a pas de préservatifs.”

What her mother meant to say, was that she liked how French bread did not contain chemicals or other substances to prolong their shelf-life.

So she translated 'preservatives' to préservatifs, which in French means ‘condom’.

The right word is conservateur, as in conservation des aliments (food preservation).

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

From jams to cereals, several other readers said to have made the same mistake. 

 

‘I want to climb you’

Some mistakes were more aggressively sexual, albeit involuntary so.

Chatting on an online dating site, David Bizer tried to tell the woman he was speaking to that he wanted to show her something: je veux te montrer – I want to show you.

“But I said je veux te monter. She blocked me immediately,” Bizer said.

 

Montrer means 'to show', monter means 'to climb' (sometimes sexually).

Colette Daubner confessed to have made the same mistake: “I thought I told my daughter's father-in-law that I wanted to show him something but had actually said I wanted to climb up on him…”

These types of mistakes – wanting to say something but pronouncing it slightly wrong and saying something completely different – were extremely common.

'Funeral? Fun!'

Ian Curd said: “I once said 'je n'aime pas trop des conards' when refusing someone who was politely trying to serve me duck at a lunch.”

Connard means 'jackass' or 'jerk' in French. 'Duck' is canard.

Another person said he had mixed up l'habitude (habit) with la bite (vulgar word for 'penis').

 

Janet Howard recalled how in a café she said chiotte (toilet) instead of chiot (puppy).

“Stunned silence throughout the cafe and then lots of giggles,” she said.

While Patricia Howard thought her neighbour confided to her, during their first barbecue back in 2015, that her husband aime coucher avec des autres (sleeping with others) rather than causer avec des autres (chat with others).

“I got my causer and coucher muddled up. We thought we were living next to swingers. Once we told them, they thought it was hilarious,” Howard wrote on The Local's Facebook page.

Chantal Ingram had a work incident when her boss told her he had gone to an enterrement (funeral). 

“I responded “oh cool!” thinking it was short for enterrement de vie de garcon (stag due). It wasn't,” she said.

Other mistakes reported by readers included mixing up baisser (lower) and baiser (fuck), j'ai chaud (I'm hot) and je suis chaud (I'm keen/I'm horny), affirming to be raciste (racist) instead of résister (resisting), or shouting couchons (let's have sex) to cat calling construction workers instead of cochons (pigs).

But the golden crown of embarrassment was probably the one from the tweet below, which we felt we had no choice but to include in this round up.

 

Chatte is French for 'pussy' (and not the cat version). The real French word for cat, is chat. 

Je suis restée chez moi et j'ai joué avec ma chatte – I stayed at home and played with my pussy.

For the full list of mistakes, check out our Twitter thread HERE, or Facebook thread HERE or Evan Osnos' thread HERE.

Member comments

  1. Very timely, thank you! Learning some weather phrases this week, one was “Les temperatures seront on baisse”. My teacher politely corrected my pronuciation of “baisse” with the advice that “otherwise it means something else entirely. Now I know what.

  2. «chatte» is the French word for “female cat” – unfortunate double meaning, as for ‘pussy’ in English. So, if you hear someone talking about «chatte» beware of context!

  3. Some of these errors stem from the desire of some people to appear cool and with-it by using street expressions. The person that said d’habit instead d’hab – slang for d’habitude – thought he was being cool by using slang. I had my fill of embarrassing moments in English when I came to the USA, so I know what it is like. What is more, try not to use curse words either, lest your habitude has you uttering them at the wrong moment. LEARN HOW TO USE AND SAY THINGS CORRECTLY BEFORE YOU TRY TO USE STREET LANGUAGE.

    I must say that I have a bone to pick with The Local which keeps showing examples of current slang, which I deem inappropriate for people who have not mastered the French language. I would venture a guess that 80% of the time when foreigners use slang, they misuse it.

  4. I once introduced my wife to a collegue as ‘C’est mon marie’. He corrected me saying, ‘Non, c’est ta femme’.
    On another occassion I wanted to tell the guy at a takeaway that I did not want the fried egg in my taco. I couldn’t pronounce the French word for egg properly and he could not understand. So finally, I gathered all the French in my arsenal and said ‘ Sans la fille de poulet, sil vous plait’.
    He understood finally, and we had a good laugh.

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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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