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Help! Attention! Urgence! Posted by on Aug 26, 2015 in Vocabulary

Many medical and emergency words are similar in French, but they are also different enough to lead to major confusions. Médecin doesn’t mean medicine and an emergency is urgent, but in French it’s l’urgence that takes the name.

That last sentence is confusing because of all the closely related words that are nearly the same, but  different enough to trip people up:

Doctor – le médicin
Medicine – le médicament
Emergency – une urgence

When you get to la pharmacie, there will be some more things that will be confusing, especially for North Americans. If you need des analgésiques (painkillers) and ask for du Tylenol, le pharmacien (the pharmacist) won’t understand. You need to ask for du paracétamol if you want some Tylenol!

If you have a prescription, don’t be fooled by the -tion ending! A prescription is une ordonnance! Heuresement (fortunately), it’s easy to say what you’re allergic to with the formula être allergique à ______. You can put any food or médicament in the blank and you will be understood.

Je suis allergique à tout !

I’m allergique to everything!

Before you get to la pharmacie, chez le médcin, or l’hôpital, you need to know how to say what’s wrong. A common difference between French and English is switching between when you have to use être (to be) and avoir (to have).

Par exemple :

I have the flu.
I have a cold
I am cold.

En français :

J’ai la grippe.
Je suis erhumé.
J’ai froid.

You can always say je suis malade (I am sick) if you’re not sure how to express what’s wrong. Mais en général (but in general), aches and pains are expressed with:

le mal à _____

Filling in the blank with whatever body part hurts. A headache is le mal à la tête, a stomachache – le mal à l’estomac, a toothache – le mal aux dents, etc.

Saying you have an ache of some sort is then easy, just rememeber to take off the article le:

J’ai mal à la tête.
I have a headache.

The same rules apply for la gueule de bois (a hangover), but remembering le vocabulaire when vous avez le mal partout (you ache everywhere) can be difficult.

If there’s any medical or emergency related topics you’d like me to cover in future articles, be sure to laisser un commentaire (leave a comment) below!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Lolo:

    The doctor is spelled “le médEcin”, not médicin.