French Word of the Day: Cité

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

This French word might look like it translates exactly into English, but it requires some added context.


Why do I need to know cité?

Because if you want to tell your friend that you grew up in a city, this French word may not be the right one to choose.

What does it mean?

Cité roughly pronounced see-tay technically could be translated as ‘city’ in English, but most of the time this does not capture the full meaning of the word in French. 

Most of the time in France, a cité will be defined as a group of buildings, usually for social housing - they're what Americans might call the projects and the British council estates or housing schemes. 

Cités are often located in the suburbs of French cities - they're often high rise tower blocks and many share a distinctive brutalist appearance, creating a separate space from the surrounding town. 


A cité is not a formal part of French admin like a commune or a département, but there's often a strong sense of identity among people who live there. French rap often contains references to having grown up in la cité, or perhaps rappers will use the verlan (backwards slang) version of cité which is tess.

The word cité is not perjorative, but they're usually occupied by people on low incomes, often from immigrant backgrounds, so certain groups - especially those on the political right - are often very negative towards cité dwellers. 

The word can be used in other ways, however - if you are on a historic tour of France, you might see signs pointing to the cité historique, which would have been the town’s original market area.

For example Carcassone in south-west France is divided into the main town and the cité - the elevated Medieval walled area.

If you want to talk about a large urban area like Paris, London or New York, you would use ville.

Use it like this

La sœur du rappeur français Booba a déclaré qu’il n'a jamais vécu en cité. Ses parents avaient de l'argent. – The sister of the French rapper Booba said that he never lived in the projects. Their parents had money.

Le sociologue explique que les jeunes vivant dans les cités se sentent souvent exclus de la société. – The sociologist explained that young people living in council estates often feel alienated from society.


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