As an anglophone, there are several times that the French language might make you blush, but you might be surprised that these five words’ true definitions are actually not too steamy after all.
Concubinage – This might sound like a 17th century mistress in English, so you’ll be surprised to see it on several formal documents in France. You might even be a concubine without knowing it!
In French, though concubinage is the legal designation for a couple that lives together, but is not married or PACsed (civil partnership). You can even get a certificate from the mairie declaring that you’re a concubine.
Célibataire – To anglophones, this word might conjure up ideas of pious religious figures who abstain from sexual intercourse, but in France about 18 million people reported themselves as célibataire last year and that certainly does not mean they were staying pure.
In reality, the word in French does not translate to the English word ‘celibate,’ instead its more accurate equivalent is ‘unmarried’ or ‘single person.’ If you do not have a partner or spouse, then in France you are by definition célibataire and you will probably find yourself ticking that box on a lot of forms.
Il est célibataire depuis cinq ans et il en est heureux – He has been single for the last five years and he is happy about it.
Promiscuité – In France, it is not uncommon to see newspaper headlines warning people to avoid promiscuité.
Government officials are not actually concerned about your sexual morality, that’s your private life and entirely up to you.
In fact, although the term in French can have a more explicit meaning of a person who has multiple partners, its more common usage is ‘overcrowded,. So really these government announcements about promiscuité are trying to help you avoid being stuck in large throngs of people, most recently for public health reasons in the pandemic years.
La Première ministre recommande de porter le masque dans les lieux de promiscuité – The prime minister recommends wearing a mask in crowded areas.
Une affaire – If your French friend tells you that everyone in the office is involved in the affaire, they are not informing you that the entire company is cheating on their partners with one another.
The confusion goes both ways, because in English if you tell a French friend you’re excited to come to Paris to have ‘les aventures‘ you might get a confused expression in response. That is because une affaire in French refers to a business dealing or matter, and les aventures is the actual way to refer to a love affair.
Tout le monde est très engagé dans cette affaire. Les risques sont élevés pour l’entreprise – Everyone is very engaged in this business matter. The stakes are high for the company.
Affaire is also used in a political context in a similar way to the English -gate suffix for a scandal. So McKinseygate in English would be L’affaire McKinsey in French.
Une douche – Telling someone you are going to go prendre une douche might feel a bit weird to say, as the English word ‘douche’ either refers to a cleansing solution to be used under the belt or is used as an insult for a particularly obnoxious person.
In French, the term is simply the equivalent of ‘shower’ in English, so even though it might take some getting used to, it is a word you’ll hear quite often in France.
J’ai pris une douche à côté de la plage après avoir nagé dans l’océan. C’était très rafraîchissant. – I took a shower next to the beach after swimming in the ocean. It was very refreshing.
The faux-amis go both ways though, and we anglophones can make our French counterparts blush by accidentally saying some phrases that are less than innocent in Molière’s language.
It is easy to mistake preservatif for the English word preservative, even though it means condom in French, just as it can be hard to remember that exhibition is definitely not the word for an art show in French. Well, maybe a very particular type of art show, if that’s your preference.