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French Word of the Day: Balles

Context is very important for this word, especially if someone asks you if you have any of these.

French Word of the Day: Balles
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know Balles ?

Because someone might ask you how many of these you spent on dinner.

What does it mean?

Balles – pronounced bahl – has two primary definitions. If you look up this word in a French dictionary you will see that it means ‘bullet’ – as in the metal projectile that is fired from a weapon. But, unless you are a hunter, your friends enjoy discussing firearms or you enjoy true crime stories, you will likely hear this word used in a very different context: as a substitute for Euro.

Similar to English terms like bucks, smackers or quid, balles (plural) means money.

It is a slang term, and is mostly used amongst young people or in informal settings. Originally, the term was interchangeable with a Franc (former French currency) and then transferred to Euro when France adopted the single currency in 1999.  

Though a slang term, the word itself goes back quite a long ways. Une balle also refers to a ball that bounces or can be used in games; or generally a spherical ball. As the word first came into use in the 1600s, some linguists think that this definition is how the word came to signify money – as coins were spherical objects with faces on them. This would assume that its other meaning as a bullet has little to do with the financial side of the word.

Some linguists think that it comes from another word entirely – bale – which means bundle, and can be used to mean ‘package.’

Nevertheless, the word has been used for centuries to talk about the currency of the day. It has survived the old franc, the new franc, and the Euro.

Take the French translation of the 1975 film about the Great Depression “Brother, can you spare a dime” for example. It became “T’as pas 100 balles?” as 100 Francs at the time were about equivalent to a dime. 

Balles is still commonly used, though a new slang term for Euro, Boule, is slowly creeping into popular use, while balles can also sometimes be used to reference drugs. 

Use it like this

Le dîner était vraiment bon marché. Ça m’a coûté que cinq balles. –  The dinner was really cheap. It only cost me five bucks.

T’as 15 balles? J’ai oublié mon portefeuille chez moi.  – Do you have 15 quid? I forgot my wallet at home.

Member comments

  1. When I lived briefly in Paris in the early 90s the word ‘balles’ never seemed to be used for new francs, only old francs; somebody might exclaim ‘Ça coûte mille balles!?”, meaning 10 new francs, as a way of making the price sound exorbitant.
    When I moved back to France three years ago I was intrigued to hear the word ‘balles’ used to refer to euros — but why not? It just missed out on being used for those new francs.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Les coiffeurs

Not just the haircare professionals

French Expression of the Day: Les coiffeurs

Why do I need to know les coiffeurs ?

Because you may need this expression when watching sports, as well as when discussing your hairstyle.

What does it mean?

Les coiffeurs roughly pronounced lay qua-fur –  means “the hairdressers,” and normally this exact translation is correct – if you go to a hairdresser in France, they will be called a coiffeur.

READ ALSO Need-to-know vocab for getting a haircut

But the expression has another meaning – one specific to sport. A “match des coiffeurs” describes a game where the substitute players, or the second-stringers play instead of the stars of the team. It usually happens during a tournament when a team has already qualified for the next stage and so opts to rest their star players in games that are not must-wins. 

The phrase has a few possible origins. The first is from football lore – apparently substitutes used to comb their teammates’ hair during a competition. The second hypothesis is that it was coined by Luis Fernandez, a first-string player who was on the Paris-Saint Germain football team in the 1980s. He reportedly said that “substitutes were not likely to get their hair ruffled” because they would be staying on the bench.

The third possibility is the simple etymological origins of the verb “coiffer” – which apparently has a second meaning that involves “getting the upper hand on your rival.” 

France has many other football related terms that come in handy during the World Cup – one is “nettoyer la toile d’arraigner” (to clean up the spider’s web). 

READ ALSO French phrases for watching the World Cup

This does not just refer to doing your dusting around the apartment – in football means to score a goal, but such an impressive goal that the goalie did not have any chance of stopping it. 

And of course, the next time you are enjoying football and using the expression “les coiffeurs,” you’ll want to avoid being called a “footix.” 

READ MORE: Word of the day: Footix

While this was once the name of the mascot for the 1998 World Cup (held in France), the term now has a broader meaning to describe a person who has just jumped on the bandwagon, or someone who is not normally a football fan but has made a show of following the World Cup, for instance. 

Use it like this

Les coiffeurs de l’équipe de France ont joué contre la Tunisie hier soir et ils ont gagné. – France’s B-Team played against Tunisia last night and they won.

C’était un match de coiffeurs car les joueurs titulaires étaient trop épuisés et avaient besoin de se reposer. – It was a match of second-stringers because the starting players were too exhausted and needed to rest.