OPINION: There’s a new divide in France – those who say ‘hop’ or ‘toc’

Baker serving a baguette in France
Does your baguette come with a hop or a toc? Photo: Thierry Zocolan/AFP
After 25 years in France, John Lichfield has noticed a new trend and new divide - between those who pepper their conversations with 'hop' and those who prefer 'toc'.

France no longer divides solely between the left and the right, or the young and the old, or the north and the south. It also divides between those who say hop whenever they do something and those who say toc.

In my almost quarter of a century living in France, I have noted the invasion of the language of Molière by verbal tics of various kinds. Du coup. Par contre. Voilà quoi.

The march of “hop” and toc is, in my opinion, relatively new.  It is especially rife amongst waiters and shop assistants, hairdressers and medical staff.

Some say hop whenever they do something. Others say toc. The other day I bought two bottles of wine from a man who alternated between hop and toc. This is the first case of hop-tic bilingualism that I’ve come across.

Other verbal ticks which are now disfiguring spoken French do serve a purpose of a kind. Par contre (literally, “on the other hand” or “anyhow”) is an annoyingly invasive phrase but it conveys, I suppose, a kind of chumminess or complicity.

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Hop and Toc are pointless – verbalisations of actions that need no verbalising. “Look I’m giving you your baguette, hop. See, I’m wrapping up your cheese, toc. Now I’m going to put down these scissors, hop. Time to take your blood pressure, toc.”

How long, one wonders, before these expressions appear in the vast dictionary of the French language which is being revised perpetually (and very slowly) by members of the Académie Française?

Actually, both of them are in there already.

“Hop! Interjection. Onomatopée. Evoque, ordonne or accompagne un movement brusque…” (Hop! Interjection. Onomatopoeia. Evokes, orders or accompanies a sudden movement…)

“ Toc. Onomatopée qui sert à exprimer un bruit, un choc sourd…”   Toc. Onamatopoeia which is used to express a muffled noise or shock…”

I suppose that gives hop-toc a kind of legitimacy. Eric Zemmour would, no doubt, be pleased. These are pointless French words. They are not verbal immigrants, like ok, wow, or bled.

Hop and Toc have, I find, even been immortalised in literature.  Virginie Hanna (words) and Sandrine Lhomme (drawings) have published “Et hop! Et toc!”, the moving story of a flea (Pucinette) who does not know how to jump. 

Several mysteries remain. Why have these onomatopoeic interjections become so widespread? Who says hop and who says toc? Are there regional differences, like the old north-south distinction between “oui” and “oc” (hence Langue d’Oc).

Is there a “pays de hop”? And a “pays de toc”? Is it a class thing? Or an age thing? Someone should write a thesis: “Les hops et les tocs: the two tribes of 21st century France.”

I am not qualified to do so. Full confession. Despite my almost 25 years in France and my Belgian Francophone mother, my spoken French is far from parfait.

It annoys me, all the same, that – even to my Anglophonic ears – the beautiful French language is being abused. Something similar is happening to English but that is not my subject.

When I came to work in France in 1997, I was astonished by the eloquence and grammatical precision of footballers, some politicians and even the beggars on the Paris Metro. Since then, it seems to me, things ain’t what they used to be.

In rural Normandy, where I live most of the time, older people that I know can move easily between a form of patois and a very precise formal French. Younger people speak neither.

Their speech is littered with phrases like du coup (and suddenly/as a result) or par contre (however/anyhow) or voilà quoi (there it is then).

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Who is to blame? The French education system? Social media? Probably.

The hop-toc phenomenon is something slightly different: words which express nothing. They are a kind of nervous tic. Interestingly, the French word for a compulsive action or tic is “un toc”.

Hop and toc betray a kind of social unease. People no longer have the confidence to do silently the things they do constantly. They have to provide a running commentary, as if they were on the TV.

That’s my theory. Voilà quoi.

Member comments

    1. A very interesting piece by John Lichfield, I have only lived in France for 5 years and am amazed at the number of slang words and shortened words that are used.
      It makes my understanding of fast spoken French much more difficult!

  1. What bugs quite often is that many people, when talking to me/someone start a new sentence with ‘écoute’. As if i’d need a reminder to pay attention… 😀

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