French Word of the Day: Culte

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

This French word does not carry the same baggage as its English counterpart.


Why do I need to know culte?

Because it's a classic 'faux ami' or false friend.

What does it mean?

Culte - roughly pronounced coolt - may look like it translates to ‘cult’ in English, but its usage is quite different in France.

The word culte is defined in French as ‘religion’ generally. It can also mean ‘worship’ - or ‘homage, honour paid to God or beings deemed to be divine’.

This means that you will often see mainstream religions like Catholicism, Judaism and Islam all referred to as cultes in French. 

For instance, someone might tell you that the French region of Alsace - which follows separate secularism rules due to its unique history - recognises ‘quatre cultes’

These are not four small religious bodies that most others would see as ‘strange or imposing excessive control over members’, which is the meaning of 'cult' in English. Instead, the ‘quatre cultes’ in Alsace are actually: Catholicism, Lutheran-Protestantism, Judaism, and reform Protestantism.

Nevertheless, the term culte still can be used to describe things that are niche. For example, cult films in English would still translate as ‘films cultes’ in French. Similarly, a ‘cult classic’ in English would be a ‘classique culte’ in French.


But if you are looking to refer to a religious cult - like the Branch Davidians of the 1990s - then in French you would instead say ‘secte’

Use it like this

Le Président a déclaré qu'il rencontrerait les représentants des cultes cette semaine. - The president said he would meet with religious representatives this week.

La République française ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte. - The French republic does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion.


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