13 unique French words that tell us something about France

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
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.

Here are a few of our favourites:

Saucer

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

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See also on The Local:

Goûter

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

Flâner

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.

Ubériser

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.”

Bouquiner

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.

Tutoyer

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.

Jaspiner

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!

Aoûtiens

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. “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”.

  2. 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. http://www.Frenchwithsimone.com
    Jaspiner is mostly found in Switzerland AND in la littérature.

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