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LEARNING FRENCH

10 everyday terms that are more poetic in French

Why create a new word when you can use several existing words? From flying deer to licking windows, these are some of the common terms that just sound better in French.

A man flies a butterfly-shaped kite. A kite in French is a 'cerf volant' - flying deer.
A man flies a butterfly-shaped kite. A kite in French is a 'cerf volant' - flying deer. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP.

Papillon de nuit – moth. If you had never come across one before, and had to pick between seeing a “moth”, or a “night butterfly”, it’d probably be a simple choice for most people. Instead of an annoying insect that keeps banging into the light bulb, papillon de nuit makes you think of a butterfly in evening clothes. Language has a lot of power to shape how we see the world, and maybe more insects would benefit from being compared to something more popular.

A la belle étoile – outdoors. This phrase is often used to describe a camping trip, where you might dormir à la belle étoile – sleep under the stars. But because the French have to be extra romantic, they go one further and describe sleeping “under the beautiful star”.

French singer Vanessa Paradis has the ‘teeth of happiness’. Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP

Les dents du bonheur – diastema. The term avoir les dents du bonheur literally means “to have the teeth of happiness”, but it’s how people in France describe someone who has a gap between their two front teeth.

The phrase dates back to the Napoleonic wars, when such people were exempted from service. To load their heavy rifles, soldiers needing to hold their weapon with two hands, and open the cartridge’s paper packaging with their teeth. Since this was believed to be too difficult for people with a gap between their teeth, they avoided being sent to the front lines, thus their smiles became a synonym for luck and happiness.

Cerf-volant – kite. That’s right, a kite in French is a “flying deer”. The most popular theory posits that the term evolved from serp-volante, with serpe a former regional term for serpent (snake), since the first kites are believed to have resembled flying snakes, or dragons. So it has nothing to do with deer, but don’t let that stop you from imagining a soaring deer next time you see a child flying a kite.

Lèche-vitrines – window shopping. You can tell how badly the French need their fashion fix. While in English we talk about going window shopping, the French equivalent is faire du lèche-vitrines – do some window-licking. It may not be the most flattering image, but we feel it captures the longing many of us feel when staring at objects we can’t afford.

Grain de beauté – mole. Literally a “grain of beauty”, this term is of course similar to the English “beauty mark”. But most French people who aren’t doctors will make no distinction between a mole and a beauty mark – they are all grains de beauté in French, regardless of where they appear on the body.

Buy some lovely ‘dad’s beard’ on a trip to the circus. Photo by ERIC ESTRADE / AFP

Barbe à papa – candy floss / cotton candy. Is there any other sweet treat that is so comforting to a child?

It’s like eating a cloud, or a delicious blanket. It’s even more comforting in France, though, where it’s referred to as “dad’s beard”. While we haven’t come across many fathers with pink or blue facial hair, we must admit there is a Father Christmas element to the texture, and the imaginative phrase will transport you to memories of your older relatives and make you forget the damage you’re doing to your teeth.

Œil au beurre noir – black eye. It’s not just that food products are compared to body parts in French – the opposite is also true.

The French term for a shiner is “eye with black butter”. The original expression was slightly longer – œil poché au beurre noir – meaning an “eye poached in black butter’, because the term draws a visual comparison to œufs pochés au beurre noir – poached eggs cooked in butter that’s heated until it turns a dark colour. In this case the pupil becomes the egg yoke. Even in moments of extreme pain, the French have their grandmother’s cooking on the mind.

Pomme de terre – potato. Some terms are so ubiquitous we use them every day and can end up forgetting the literal meaning. But when you stop and think about it, “earth apple” is a pretty good way to describe a potato.

Gueule de bois – hangover. Have you ever thought that the word “hangover” just isn’t evocative enough of the despair you feel the morning after having had too much to drink? French has you covered.

Avoir la gueule de bois literally means “to have a wooden mouth“, and describes the dry mouth you get when you’re dehydrated from having consumed too much alcohol. But it has also come to describe all the symptoms of a hangover. Unfortunately the film The Hangover was released as Very Bad Trip in France, which doesn’t sound quite as impressive.

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PROPERTY

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

Plumbing ermergencies are common in France, so here's our guide to what to do, who to call and the phrases you will need if water starts gushing in unexpected areas.

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

How do I find a reliable plumber and avoid getting scammed?

First, try to stick with word-of-mouth if you can. Contact trusted individuals or resources, like your neighbours and friends, or foreigner-oriented Facebook groups for your area (ex. “American Expats in Paris”). This will help you find a more reliable plumber. If this is not an option for you, try “Pages Jaunes” (France’s ‘Yellow Pages’) to see reviews and plumbers (plomberie) in your area. 

Next, educate yourself on standard rates. If the situation is not an emergency, try to compare multiple plumbers to make sure the prices are in the correct range. 

Finally, always Google the name of the plumber you’ll be working with – this will help inform you as to whether anyone else has had a particularly positive (or negative) experience with them – and check that the company has a SIRET number.

This number should be on the work estimate (devis). You can also check them out online at societe.com. If you want to be extra careful you can also ask to see their carte artisan BTP (craftsman card). 

READ MORE: What is a SIRET number and why is it crucial when hiring French tradesmen?

Who is responsible for paying for work?

If you own the property, you are typically the one who is responsible for financing the plumbing expenses.

However if you’re in a shared building, you must determine the cause and location of the leak. If you cannot find the origin of the leak, you may need a plumber to come and locate it and provide you with an estimate. You can use this estimate when communicating with insurance, should the necessity arise. 

If you are a renter, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most of the time, water damage should be the landlord’s responsibility, but there are exceptions.

The landlord is obliged to carry out major repairs (ex. Natural disaster, serious plumbing issues) that are necessary for the maintenance and normal upkeep of the rented premises (as per, Article 6C of the law of July 6, 1989). The tenant, however, is expected to carry out routine maintenance, and minor repairs are also to be paid by the tenant. If the problem is the result of the tenant failing to maintain the property, then it will be the tenant’s responsibility to cover the cost of the repair.

Legally speaking, it is also the tenant’s responsibility to get the boiler serviced once a year, as well as to maintain the faucets and joints, and to avoid clogging the pipes.

READ MORE: Assurance habitation: How to get home insurance in France

If you end up in dispute with your landlord over costs, you can always reach out to ADIL, the national Housing Association which offers free legal advice for housing issues in France. 

What happens if the leak is coming from my neighbour’s property?

Both you and your neighbour should contact your respective housing insurance companies and file the ‘sinistre’ (damage) with them.

If you both agree on the facts you can file an amiable (in a friendly fashion), then matters are much more simple and you will not have to go through the back-and-forth of determining fault.

If having a friendly process is not possible, be sure to get an expert to assert where the leak is coming from and file this with your insurance company.

As always, keep evidence (lists and photographs) of the damage. Keep in mind that many insurance providers have a limited number of days after the start of the damage that you can file. Better to do it sooner than later, partially because, as with most administrative processes in France, it might take a bit of time.

Vocab

Plumbing has its own technical vocabulary so here are some words and phrases that you’re likely to need;

Hello, I have a leak in my home. I would like to request that a plumber come to give me an estimate of the damage and cost for repairs – Bonjour, j’ai une fuite chez moi. Je voudrais demander qu’un plombier vienne me donner une estimation des dégâts et du coût de la réparation. 

It is an emergency: C’est une urgence

I have no hot water: Je n’ai pas d’eau chaude

The boiler has stopped working: La chaudière ne fonctionne plus.

I cannot turn my tap off: Je ne peux pas arrêter le robinet.

The toilet is leaking: Mes toilettes fuient.

The toilet won’t flush/ is clogged: Mes toilettes sont bouchées

There is a bad smell coming from my septic tank: Il y a un mauvaise odeur provenant de ma fosse septique

I would like to get my electricity / boiler safety checked: Je souhaiterais une vérification de la sécurité de mon installation électrique / de ma chaudière

I can smell gas: Ca sent le gaz

My washing machine has broken: Ma machine a laver est cassée

Can you come immediately? Est-ce que vous pouvez venir tout de suite?

When can you come? Quand est-ce que vous pouvez venir?

How long will it take? Combien de temps cela prendra-t-il ?

How much do you charge? Quels sont vos prix? / Comment cela va-t-il coûter?

How can I pay you? Comment je peux vous payer ? 

Here are the key French vocabulary words for all things plumbing-related:

Dishwasher – Lave vaisselle

Bath – Baignoire

Shower – Douche

Kitchen Sink – Évier

Cupboard – Placard

Water meter – Compteur d’eau

The Septic Tank – La fosse septique

A leak – Une fuite

Bathroom sink – Le lavabo

The toilet – La toilette

Clogged – Bouché

To overflow – Déborder

A bad smell – Une mauvaise odeur

The flexible rotating tool used to unclog a pipe (and also the word for ferret in French) – Furet 

Water damage – Dégât des eaux

The damage – Le sinistre

And finally, do you know the French phrase Sourire du plombier? No, it’s not a cheerful plumber, it’s the phrase used in French for when a man bends down and his trouser waistband falls down, revealing either his underwear or the top of his buttocks. In Ebglish it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.

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