French Word of the Day: Atteinte

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

This French word can have a confusingly wide range of meanings - fortunately there is a handy trick to distinguish them.


Why do I need to know atteinte?

Because it can be used in a few different ways, but luckily there are some tricks to keep the meanings straight.

What does it mean?

Atteinte - roughly pronounced ah-tahnt - can be a bit confusing because it can be used in several different contexts (and also sounds a lot like another common French word when spoken aloud).

Atteinte is the past participle of the verb atteindre which looks and sounds eerily similar to attendre, which means ‘to wait’. However, atteindre actually means ‘to arrive at’ or ‘to touch’, which you can use to talk about arriving at a certain age, or reaching a goal. 


For example - when conjugated, someone could say une fois que j'aurai atteint la quarantaine (once I have reached my 40s).

To keep the different uses of this French word straight, there are a couple of distinctions to learn - as is often the case in French it's the little word that follows that makes a big difference to the meaning.

The first is atteinte à which means to cause harm, hinder, or undermine. In this case, you’ll see the French press use it when they are talking about crimes. 

An atteinte aux personnes translates as an offence against persons (personal injury), and there are several different types including sexual crimes, harassment, defamation and ‘provocation of terrorism’. In contrast, an atteinte aux biens would be an offence against property, such as theft or vandalism.

The second version is atteinte de, which is often followed by an illness or disease. For example, you could say a person is elle est atteinte d’un cancer or il est atteint d’Alzheimer. This means the person in question is suffering from or affected by that disease.

You can also just use atteinte on its own. In legal French, a person who has suffered an injury or attack would have subi une atteinte.

But when it comes to violent attacks, in common language you’d usually hear someone say une agresssion instead of une atteinte, which is more related to the official legal terminology.

And finally, to make matters more confusing, the word attentat, which means an attack (usually reserved for serious events, such as terror attacks), is a bit different. While the two share similar roots, they actually come from different verbs - attentat does not come from atteindre, but rather from the verb attenter, which means ‘to make a criminal attempt against something’.

Use it like this

La célébrité est atteinte d'un cancer. - The celebrity is suffering from cancer.

Il a déclaré que le port de ce symbole religieux était une atteinte à la laïcité. - He said that wearing the religious symbol was an attack on secularism.


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Brad Beck 2024/04/03 18:29
"Atteinte" is also commonly used when talking about reaching a threshold ("Législatives nationales : 40 partis et regroupements politiques ont atteint le seuil de représentativité") or other level )"La banquise antarctique atteint le minimum le plus bas jamais enregistré"). You'll see it in political reporting and many INSEE reports.

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