French Expression of the Day: Système D

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French Expression of the Day: Système D
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

It might sound like a military operation, but you will probably have to use 'system D' at least once during your time in France.


Why do I need to know Système D?

Because if your train was cancelled during a strike, or your childcare arrangements suddenly fall through, then you might need a 'system D'.

What does it mean?

Système D roughly pronounced sis-tehm day – may sound like the name of a rock band or a computer programming device, but it has little to do with music or coding.

In reality, Système D is a French expression reserved for situations where one must be resourceful and inventive - it is defined as ‘the art of getting by’ or ‘making do’ or perhaps 'cobbling it together' and it has been used for several decades in France.


You might use this expression if you find yourself having to make do in a complicated scenario. For example, the French press said parents were forced to adapt after a recent strike closed schools for the day. One French article quoted a parent who said “On fait ce qu'on peut, c'est le système D” (We do what we can, it is a make-do situation).

The “D” part of Système D actually comes from the French word “débrouille (or se débrouiller)” which means “to get by” or to work to put things in order.

Use it like this

Ne vous inquiétez pas, Michel s'adaptera à n'importe quelle situation dans laquelle vous le mettez. C'est un expert du système D. – Don’t worry, Michel will adapt to any situation you put him in. He is very resourceful.

Se rendre au travail était le système D la semaine dernière, alors que toutes les options de transport étaient fermées en raison de la grève. Il fallait être très créatif. – Getting to work was a make-do situation last week, when all public transportation was closed due to the strike. You had to be really creative.


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Anonymous 2023/01/24 16:20
I think this expression may have originated during the Second World War. People had to make do in their occupied country with all its deprivations and accompanying terror. I have been working with the daughter of a French forced labourer in WW2, deported to work in Germany in the camps, to produce a book based on his memoir. It is called If Only it Hadn't Rained and will be published by Matador this April.

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