French word of the day: Dépouiller

Today's French word of the day is 'dépouiller'.
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Depending on the context, this French verb can refer to nudity, butchery, crime or a natural phenomenon.

Why do I need to know dépouiller?

Because it can be used in some very different contexts, and if you only know one of them, it could leave you feeling very confused, not to say shocked.

What does it mean?

Dépouiller means “to strip”, and just like the English translation, it can be used in many different ways. The term comes from the old French despoillier, itself derived from Latin, which provides a hint towards its meaning, since it’s similar to the English verb “despoil”.

At the extreme end, it can refer to stripping an animal of its skin, ie dépouiller un lapin – to skin a rabbit.

But unless you happen to be married to a butcher, you’ll mostly hear it used to refer to people or objects.

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On its own, dépouiller is a literary term for undressing someone, which remains much less common than déshabiller. Or it can mean scrutinising something; studying it closely.

When used in conjunction with the word de, it can refer to pretty much anything. You could say of a disgraced athlete found guilty of cheating that il a été dépouillé de son titre – he was stripped of his title.

It’s also used to describe autumn, as in: Le vent a dépouillé les arbres de leurs feuilles – the wind stripped the trees of their leaves.

If you come across the term in the newspaper, though, more often than not it will be describing a less pleasant phenomenon. Because it can also mean stripping someone of their physical possessions or, in other words, robbing them. Hence this recent headline from Le Parisien: Un joueur du PSG dépouillé au bois de Boulogne – A PSG player robbed in the Bois de Boulogne.

Use it like this

Deux adolescents ont dépouillé un retraité de son portefeuille – Two teenagers robbed a pensioner of his wallet

Quand j’arrive au travail, je commence par dépouiller les journaux – When I arrive at work, I start by combing through the newspapers

Member comments

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  1. When I first saw the word I took it to mean “de-hair” (poil=hair) which would fit nicely with skinning an animal.

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