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Top 10 “Untranslatable” French Words Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in Vocabulary

I hesitate to use the word “untranslatable” here because, frankly, there is no perfect translation between languages. Words and concepts have different shades of meanings in different languages based on particular linguistic cultures and histories. But non-native speakers can have an idea of a particular word, even if they don’t know all shades of its meanings.

Here is a list of ten French words that have no English equivalent. Some of these words have been adopted into the English language, even though their meanings have changed slightly in translation:

Flâneur (nm)– This word has been adopted into the English language, particularly in literary studies. Literally a “stroller” or a “lounger”, in the 19th century this word came to mean a literary man of a certain social class, who would spend his time exploring Parisian streets. Of course, the leisure to stroll around Paris habitually meant that flâneurs did not have any money problems! The poet Charles Baudelaire often used this figure in his poetry.

Dépaysement (nm) — This interesting word can mean anything from disorientation to culture shock. The word is formed from the word pays or “country” and would literally mean something like “to be uncountried”. Dépaysement is the feeling one gets of not being in one’s own country, of being a foreigner.

Retrouvailles (nf plural) — I love this word. Literally meaning something like “refindings”, this word refers to the reunion you would have with someone you care deeply for but whom you have not seen in a long time. The English word “reunion” just doesn’t do this word justice.

Terroir (nm) — I’ve written a blog post on this word before. Terroir is a notoriously tricky word to translate, although it is often used in the international wine and cheese industries. Terroir describes the combination of climate, labor, geology, and geography of a certain place that contributes to its distinct agricultural products, including wine and cheese.

Bricoleur (nm) — bricoleur is a handyman who makes use of whatever materials are available to him to create a construction (or bricolage). Perhaps the closest equivalent in English would be something like a DIYer, although this doesn’t quite convey the meaning of using a variety of  available materials to create one unified thing, like taking the old wood in your shed to create a nice bookshelf.

Savoir-Faire (nm) — This word is, of course, ubiquitous in English. In French, it is similar to “know-how”, or how to solve certain practical problems. Once adopted into the English language, however, this French word took on a different meaning: knowing how to act appropriately in social situations.

Spleen (nm) — Ah, spleen. Another 19th century, Baudelairian word. In French, spleen means melancholy, profound boredom and dissatisfaction. In fact, its synonymous with another French word that the English language has adopted: ennui. In English, spleen (not the anatomical definition) is bad temper or spite.

Si (conj) — Si can mean multiple things in French (like “if”), but it is also a cool way to answer in the affirmative to a negative question. So, for example, someone asks you, referring to a film perhaps, tu ne l’as pas vu, n’est-ce pas? (You didn’t see it, right?), you would say si (and not oui) in order to respond, si, je l’ai vu la semaine dernière (yes, I saw it last week).

Chez (prep)– This is another classic French word that you probably are familiar with. But it’s such a useful and versatile word. Not only can chez mean that you are at a particular location (chez moi) but it can also indicate the particular state of mind of a person or group of people (chez les français — “among the French”) or to speak about an artist’s body of work (chez Molière). 

Épater (v) — Not to bring up Baudelaire again, but among the French decadent poets of the 19th century, they used the following rallying cry: épater la bourgeoisie! This literally means, “shock the middle class”. But épater also means to wow, to stun, to amaze, and to impress — it packs quite a bit of punch!

Can you think of any other “untranslatable” words in French?

To help jolt your mind into action, listen to Baudelaire’s classic poem, “Le spleen de Paris”:

 

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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 http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!


Comments:

  1. Neil Lucock:

    How about “une crise de foie”; a French illness the English have not yet adopted.
    Bricoleur might also be translated by the term “bodger” although this has a sense of a temporary fix made inexpertly with whatever is available.
    I love how versatile “chez” is, (and German “bei” which means the same). It always surprises me that the English has never adopted these words.

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Neil Lucock Ah..I love “une crise de foie” — not getting it, of course, but it is a poetic way of describing some kind of indigestion! For an English speaker, it’s interesting that the expression locates this to the liver.

      I’ve never heard the word “bodger” before — thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    • Matt:

      @Neil Lucock Just checked with the missus (lyonnaise). Bodger kind of fits for the negative sense, but bricolage and bricoleur are also positive and well intentioned activities/descriptions. Jack of all trades might be closer.

  2. Piotr:

    En allemand il y a ce mot “doch” qui signifie, je crois, la même chose que “si” quant aux réponses aux questions qui contiennent une négation. 😀
    – Tu l’as pas vu ? (Hast du das nicht gesehen?)
    – Si, je l’ai vu la semaine dernière. (Doch, ich habe das letzte Woche gesehen.) 😀

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Piotr Danke vielmals, Piotr, for sharing this. I, unfortunately, don’t know much German (although I have family in Germany!) and would love to learn more.

  3. Grainne Briscoe:

    “passionné”.
    I find myself saying this in English because I can’t find any other word

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Grainne Briscoe That’s a great suggestion, Grainne. Thank you!

  4. Madame Weil:

    I’ve always called a bricoleur “a tinkerer.” Gorgeous in French *and* English.

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Madame Weil That’s a great translation — and one I hadn’t thought of before. Thank you!

  5. Paris:

    Quick du neuf?

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Paris “quoi de neuf” is a great suggestion!

  6. Annie:

    “Bon(ne)” followed by a noun to use in so many situations to wish someone a good experience: bon voyage and bon appetit are the famous examples, but other examples include “bon spectacle” to wish someone to enjoy the show (i.e. theatre, concert or other live entertainment) they’re about to watch; “bon match” for a sports match; and my favourite: “bonne continuation” which is sometimes translated loosely as “keep up the good work”, often used to wish someone who is working on something (business venture, big project, etc) all the best with their continued endeavours.

    I also love “n’importe quoi” – very hard to translate, related to the word “importer”, to be important/to matter, but this phrase has very little to do with that and is used as a reaction to a ridiculous situation or to express disappointment/frustration. e.g. You wait in line for 20 minutes at the post office, and when you finally get to the front, the desk closes. One might say “non, mais c’est n’importe quoi!” – “this is ridiculous / this is bullshit / I can’t believe this!”. This phrase is also used more playfully or in a tongue in cheek way, often in a teasing way as if to say “tut tut”. For example if a child made a big mess but you weren’t actually angry, you might tease them and say “n’importe quoi” — a similar concept in English might be “well well well, what are we going to do with you?” in that teasing way.

    Never heard of spleen in French before!

    Also, quick correction to your section about “si” — it’s “n’est-ce pas” (missing “-ce”).

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Annie Great suggestions, Annie. N’importe quoi” is one of my favorite phrases…and I love the little interjection “bof” as well!

      Thank you for pointing out the mistake — it has been corrected!

  7. Mytch:

    débrouiller!

  8. Lizinucci:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading all these “untranslatables”. Does “quoi de neuf?” not mean “What’s new?” which is pretty close to the French or have I been misunderstanding all these years?

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Lizinucci Hi Lizinucci — You are correct! “Quoi de neuf” does literally mean “What’s new?” I was referring (not clearly, I’m afraid!) to the fact that some students have problems with this expression because of the different meanings of “nouveau” and “neuf”.

  9. L Hays:

    Se débrouiller.

  10. L Hays:

    Sousiance.

  11. Brian:

    I remember one from schooldays, which I assume is still current: “avoir de quoi [faire quelque chose]”. The specific example was “elle a de quoi s’asseoir” – ie she has what she needs for sitting, a sneaky way of saying she has a large derriere. A less sexist example would be “il a de quoi se plaindre” – he has plenty to complaint about. Not untranslatable, of course, but no translation is quite as snappy as the French.

  12. Mary Fagan:

    Bricoleur in American English instead of a DIYer (I agree, it’s not precise), but a cultural reference is in order: MacGyver.

  13. Corinne:

    N’importe quoi seems to be in english “whatever!”. I have another suggestion for a word hard to translate, or at least for which I know no translation, it is “tu me saoûles ! ” which means “you’re bothering me” but to a high point !

  14. Corinne:

    We do not say “débrouiller” but “se débrouiller”, meaning to sort it out by yourself.

  15. Corinne:

    “Quoi de neuf” is more likely “What’s up”, even if the word-to-word translation is “What’s new”.

  16. Corinne:

    @Brian : “avoir de quoi” is more used in the negative form, like “Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat”, meaning it’s no big deal, or “Il n’y a pas de quoi rire”, which means you should not laugh about it. You can also say “Elle n’a pas de quoi s’acheter des vêtements”, meaning she can’t afford buying clothes, or “je n’ai pas de quoi prendre un taxi”, which means I don’t have something to take a taxi, I have no money to take a taxi. To not confuse with “ne pas savoir quoi”, which means “Not to know what (to do something)”: je ne sais pas quoi faire (to do) , je ne sais pas quoi mettre (to dress) , je ne sais pas quoi dire (to say) etc…

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Corinne Thank you for your very helpful comments, Corinne!

  17. miji67:

    “Bêtise” is quite untranslatable. Ne fais pas de bêtises would be translated as Don’t horse around, for example. But it’s note quite the act itself that it qualifies, but an attitude.
    Using it as a noun : C’est une bêtise, which would translate as : This is bad… Really, it misses something…

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @miji67 Great suggestion, miji67!

  18. Tom Sanders:

    “Amourette” for a brief romantic relationship. It works better than the two most common English terms I grew up with, “fling” and “affair,” that can mean many other things.

  19. Christophe:

    Oh là là!

  20. Jane:

    Hi, I thought there was a French word for someone who is beautiful but in an unconventional way. My friend said it means ugly beautiful but I thought it meant more than that ?

  21. JF:

    “filière” is another word with no English équivalent