13 unique French words that tell us something about France

Whether it's the art of strolling along an elegant boulevard or having an all-comers verbal brawl there are some French phrases that just don't translate - and which reveal some interesting things about France and its culture.

13 unique French words that tell us something about France
Wandering through the French capital is so special that it has its own word. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Here are a few of our favourites:


What does it mean? The verb saucer is literally used to describe cleaning sauce off one’s plate with a piece of bread, or just generally using the bread to mop up the final remnants of your delicious meal. It originated in the 14th century from the Old French world saussier (saucière in Modern French) meaning “sauce dish”.

What does it reveal? Being a country that values food in general and the tradition of eating together (87 percent of French people almost always eat dinner at home with family members), it is in some ways no surprise that such a food and family focused verb would be present within the French language.

So next time you’re around the dinner table and have a piece of left-over baguette, mop up the remains of the dish and exclaim sauçons ! (let’s mop!) in true French style.

READ ALSO The best food-based French idioms


What does it mean? Le goûter is a little pick-me-up snack eaten at around 4pm. The consumption of un goûter is mostly common amongst school children, as the tradition time to eat such a snack coincides with the end of the school day and is often sugary – which is why you often see lines of parents and people queuing at the boulangerie in the middle of the afternoon in search of a sweet snack. It’s sometimes also known as un quatre heure, in reference to the time it is generally eaten.

READ ALSO How to snack (or not) like a French person

What does it reveal? Snacking is generally frowned upon in France, particularly the kind of grazing at the desk that is so common among office workers in the Anglo Saxon world. In France, food is taken seriously and you should stop what you are doing and concentrate on the food and also the company.

READ ALSO 12 of the best quotes about France and the French


What does it mean? The verb flâner literally means to wander aimlessly, people watching, taking in the sights, and generally observing life as it passes by – the perfect word to describe a day in Paris. Originally coined by the French poet Baudelaire to identify an observer of nineteenth-century urban life, the word was often used in his literature and is still used today.

What does it reveal? The French value their time – there are 11 public holidays in France each year (or 13 if you live in Alsace-Lorrraine) and on average, a French worker can expect 30 days of paid leave per year. They appreciate the beauty in ambling around with no particular destination, valuing the act for its philosophical and reflective purposes. Sitting in a café, enjoying the sunshine in the park with a book, walking with no particular destination in mind are the epitome of French lifestyle.

Se prendre un vent

What does it mean? The French language is renowned for its passion and ways of expression. Se prendre un vent is an informal way of stating that you have been utterly ignored, usually by the person whose attention you’re trying to gain. In English, we might say “to speak to a brick wall” instead. 

What does it reveal? The French language has a lot of imagery, and se prendre un vent is a good example of this. It literally translates to “to take a wind”, which perfectly illustrates the feeling of being ignored.

Faire le zouave

What does it mean? In English, faire le zouave doesn’t have an exact translation, but you could say it means “to act the goat” or to “play the fool”. In the (Belgian) TinTin cartoons, Captain Haddock uses the word zouave as an insult, which caught on and is now often used throughout France.

What does it reveal? Les zouaves were a regiment in the French army between 1830 and 1962, known to be risk-takers and daredevils they flag up France’s important military history.


What does it mean? The verb Ubériser is a newcomer to the French lexicon having only been around for a few years (since the arrival of ride-hiring company Uber). It’s used to describe the digital conquest of services from technology apps such as Uber, Air B&B, and Deliveroo. 

What does it reveal? Ubériser is frequently used in a negative sense to describe the attack on workers’ rights that come with the ‘gig economy’ employers such as Uber and Deliveroo. France has a strong tradition of protecting the rights of its workers and the employment practices of some of these new companies have been the subject of court cases.

READ ALSO These are the days off that workers in France are entitled to

Attendre 107 Ans

What does it mean? This phrase is used to describe a situation taking a long time. It literally translates to “to take 107 years”, and is a good term to know if you need to describe how long your French paperwork is taking. 

What does it reveal? The amount of years used in this phrase, 107, is so specific because it makes reference to how long Notre Dame took to build – 107 years.

“I love this expression because it’s a double cultural whammy,” says James Preston, a translator and etymologist based in Paris. “Not only is there a tangible historic origin, but it also perfectly exemplifies French hyperbole when faced with a minor inconvenience.”


What does it mean? The verb technically means “to read” but is not the same as the more commonly-used lire. Bouquiner wouldn’t be used within a sentence where you’re explaining how you’ve spent the day reading tax documents, it’s more magical than that and alludes to the idea of reading something interesting and captivating. 

What does it reveal? The Cambridge Dictionary uses the word in the sentence “bouquiner avant de s’endormir” which means “to read before going to sleep”, implying the verb is a way of describing an escapism. It’s about reading for pleasure and shows the importance of literature and the written word within French culture, where writers have a high status.

Semer la zizanie 

What does it mean? In English, to semer la zizanie could be used to illustrate a brawl gone wrong or a way of causing a commotion. We might use “to stir something up” but the singular word zizanie, literally translates to “a dispute”.

What does it reveal? La zizanie is a popular reference within French culture and is a fun sounding word that easily bounces off the tongue. It was used as the title of an Asterix book and a Louis de Funès film and is likely to be used in an informal, comical, manner whenever people are vociferously arguing, which happens quite a lot in France.


What does this mean? Tutoyer literally means to start using the informal word for you – tu – instead of the formal vous with someone. There is obviously no direct translation into English but it’s good to know that you probably shouldn’t ask someone of a much older generation if “on peut tutoyer?”

READ ALSO When to drop the vous and get friendly in France 

What does it reveal? The use of the verb tutoyer reveals how traditional and formal the French language can be – which Anglophones often find hard to adapt to. Using vous with someone much older than yourself is deemed appropriate, in the same way you’re expected to use vous with your boss or someone you don’t know in an informal manner. 

Un exutoire

What does it mean? Un exutoire literally means “an outlet” in English, but in French it’s used to describe an activity you might engage in in order to keep your mind distracted from negative memories or feelings. For example, booking a holiday to somewhere far away in order to forget the past 18 months, might be deemed as un exutoire!

What does it reveal? Despite being a noun as opposed to a verb, un exutoire is similar to  flâner and boquiner because these words all make reference to escapism and flag up the importance of  good quality of life to the French.


What does it mean? In English, the verb jaspiner roughly translates to “having a natter” or “a good gossip”. 

What does it reveal? It reveals that the French like a good catch up and a gossip too. It’s the perfect word to describe conversations that might be had catching up with friends on a packed terrace, or amongst locals over a coffee. The French do like the occasional political scandal, which likely leads to a lot of jaspinant!


What does it mean? In English, there is no real translation, but it basically means “the people of August” – referring to people who take their summer holidays in August, as opposed to the juilletistes, who holiday in July.

What does it reveal?

In France, August is the month of summer holidaying. Not only are schools off for Les Grandes Vacances, but cities largely empty out and it’s not at all uncommon for your local boulagerie, pharmacist or florist to close up for the whole month while the owners and staff take a holiday. And as for getting any administrative tasks done, it’s probably better to forget about that until September and la rentrée (the return from holidays).

READ ALSO Why la rentrée means so much more in French than the end of the school holidays

Member comments

  1. Great article mais :

    on peut SE tutoyer. Do not forget the SE reflective verb. Like se lever, se coucher, s’habiller.

    se prendre un vent is literally being ignored during a seduction moment. You are trying to flirt and you are being ignored.

    Bouquiner. Not boquiner. Un bouquin (same sound as book) c’est-à-dire un livre.
    Jaspiner is mostly found in Switzerland AND in la littérature.

  2. “Using vous with someone much older than yourself is deemed inappropriate,”. I guess you meant to say that “using TU with someone much older than yourself is deemed inappropriate”.

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Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).


The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river.