French word of the day: Lambda

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10 Aug, 2021 Updated Tue 10 Aug 2021 12:38 CEST
French word of the day: Lambda

Greek letters aren’t just reserved for American colleges and strains of deadly viruses – this one is a common term when referring to people in French.


Why do I need to know lambda?

Because when you hear it in conversation for the first time, you’ll probably have no idea what it means or how to spell it.

What does it mean?

Lambda is the eleventh letter in the Greek alphabet, but it’s also a common word in French which means “ordinary” or “average”.

Most likely because of its place in the middle of the Greek alphabet, the French use it as an adjective to refer to something or someone with no distinguishing features.


It’s often seen in the term citoyen lambda, which refers to an ordinary person, or average Joe. That phrase is useful for example when evaluating whether somebody who isn’t an expert on a given topic would be able to understand what someone is saying. It's also deployed to distinguish regular citizens from people who hold a particular function - like doctors or police officers.

Lambda sounds similar in French and English, although the first a is pronounced more like an o in French.

Since it comes from a Greek word, it does not change in the feminine or plural forms.

Use it like this

C’était la parole d'un policier contre celle d'un citoyen lambda – It was the word of a police officer against that of an ordinary civilian

Le lecteur lambda ne comprendra pas cette phrase – The average reader won’t be able to understand this sentence

Des soignants et des citoyens lambda se sont réunis pour manifester – Healthcare workers and ordinary citizens came together to protest

Elle n’est pas moche mais c’est une veste vraiment lambda – It’s not ugly, but it’s a really basic jacket

Not to be confused with…

Lambda is also the name given to a highly contagious Covid variant first identified in Peru. In this case the name comes from the Greek alphabet like the previous alpha, beta and delta variants and makes no comment on the ordinariness or otherwise of the variant. 


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