French Language Blog

C’est quoi un calembour? Posted by on Jan 18, 2016 in Vocabulary

What is a calembour? Calembour is the French word for “pun.” Puns are jokes that rely on the double meaning of words or the use of homophones and, thus, they are very dependent on a deep knowledge of a language and linguistic culture. In French, the definition is “un jeu de mot fondé sur la polysémie ou l’homophonie.” In French culture, les calembours are not only important humoristically, but politically as well. Many great French satirists expressed their political opinions through the use of puns, especially in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, puns don’t often translate well from one language to another. They are also dependent on pronunciation, which makes it hard for language learners to pronounce them effectively and then relate that word to another, likely unassociated, homophone.

Thus, learning puns is a great way to learn a language well. Understanding the complexities of a language through its use of puns can provide an advanced student with a higher degree of fluency and cultural competency–and a better knowledge of pronunciation

To this end, here is a list of French puns (calembours) with their second meanings, which will guide you to their proper pronunciation:

  1. Tu rêves, Hebert? (pronounced like: Tu réverbères?)
  2. “Allons ! Finissons-en, Charles attend !” (This quote, attributed to Louis XVIII sounds like: Finissions-en, charlatan!)
  3. “De deux choses lune, l’autre c’est le soleil.” (This is from the poet Jacques Prevert and is a more difficult pun that plays on the French expression “des choses l’une”)

French is especially rich for puns (as you can see in modern-day satirical newspapers like “Le Canard Enchainé) because it relies on regular accentuation and has a great number of homophones.

These little (and somewhat dirty) anecdotes, from here, offer more light to the history of French puns:

Au XVIe siècle, “ils ont mis l’écu ensemble “, signifiait “ils se sont mariés ” – vous découvrirez pourquoi.

Louis XVI aimait à répéter, cette innocente blague : “les puces sont de la secte d’Epicure (des piqûres ) et les poux de la secte d’Epictète (des pique-têtes)”. Les parodies des vers tragiques font la joie des écoliers, on pense ainsi au fameux vers de Corneille dans Cinna : “Et le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule”, détourné par des générations de collégien en “… quand les fesses reculent “- ce que Corneille avait probablement prévu, car on oublie combien nos aieux étaient farceurs.

Ainsi, si vous aviez des illusions sur le sérieux de nos ancêtres, vous ne manqueriez pas de poissons, car, selon le vieux calembour séculaire : ” les illusions sont…des truites !”

Did you understand all of these puns? If not, read it out loud again!

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!