Speaking French (#2)  A view of the French Academy, seen from the Seine (Credit)
 Glossary    Learning French

Below is a list of terms or phrases you won't find in an ordinary French - English dictionary, nuances obligent! Even if you've learned perfect grammatical French in school, you still may not know the REAL meanings of these phrases which are used in everyday life in France. However, do not take it too seriously ! This is just to give you an idea of the French humor : second degree and exageration ! Here goes!

Some of these expressions come from a hilarious book, The Parisians, by French journalist Alain Schifres published by J.C. Lattes, 1990, Paris and from Sky my Husband-Ciel mon mari by Jean-Loup Chiflet (John-Wolf Whistle), Hermé 1985, Paris (Guide de l'Anglais courant-Guide of the Running English!).
 when they say ...  its literal meaning is...  but in fact it means...
  "il ne fait pas chaud"  it is not hot  it is terribly cold
 "il n'est pas grand"  he is not big  he is small and cute (for a baby)
 "cher ami"  dear friend  drop dead, pal
 "une ambiance d'enfer"  "an atmosphere from hell"  "a fantastic (or : hot) atmosphere"
  "à très bientôt"  see you very soon  I hope I'll never see you again
 "ce n'est pas mal"  it's not bad   it's wonderful
  "elle n'est pas épaisse"  she's not thick  she's skinny as a rail
 "il est brave"  he is courageous  he is totally stupid
  "au plaisir"  I'll be happy to see you again  next time, I'll cross the street
 "il est gentil"  he's nice  he's not very smart
 "je l'ai lu, il y a des choses"  I read it, there are some interesting things in it  I read it, it's really bad
 "Non" (typically shopkeepers according to Polly Platt)  no  try to convince me or : tell me something less boring
  "ça n'existe pas" (same source)   it doesn't exist  it's down in the storeroom
  "impossible" (same source)  impossible  I'm tired or I'm busy or the way you put your request doesn't intrigue me enough to bother with it
 "PFFFFTTTTT"  with a shrugging of shoulders, raising of elbows and a scowl  I don't know
  "j'ai mal au coeur"  I have a pain in my heart  I am going to puke
"j'ai mal au foie" I have a pain in my liver" I have a stomach ache or (more likely) I drank too much yesterday
  "ça ne mange pas de pain"  it doesn't eat bread  it is not important
  "flanquer un pain"  to hit with bread   to punch out

More to come ...


DID YOU KNOW THAT....? Between French and English, one word, two meanings : built on the same word (to do = faire), a " doer " is positive in English (somebody who gets things done) and "un faiseur " is negative in French (somebody who shows off)


 A few useful links :

  • Alliance Française has a very comprehensive site in English, with many useful tips on life in Paris ; Alliance Française, 101 blvd Raspail 75006 Paris, tel. 01 45 44 38 28 , or 2819 Ordway Street NW Washington DC 20008 tel 202-966 9740 www.afusa.org (read a funny piece about it in Barrie Kerper's book). More about Alliance Française and the French cultural policy.
  • Frenchplanations is an educational French-related website with information on French grammar, French vocabulary, French culture and more created from the point of view of an American who has lived in Paris.
  • Private French lessons in Paris : our blog provides insights about French language, French culture and Paris.
  • Join a conversation group :
  • Learn French at home :
  • And more :
    • Frantastique provides daily, fun, personalized French lessons which adapt to your level and interests. 10-15 minutes a day is all it takes to improve your French over the long-term. Sign up for our 7-day free trial and laugh while you learn!
    • an informative and cultural audio E-magazine for French learners and expatriates
    • Click here for a glossary of French words
    • More to come....

USEFUL TIPS : Frequently used acronyms : AOC (Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée = certified wine or food), ASSEDIC (unemployment insurance scheme), CDI or CDD (Contrat à Durée Indéterminée/Déterminée = unlimited time/limited time job contract), CRS (Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité = riot police), DOM-TOM (Département/Territoire d'Outre-mer = French overseas regions), EDF (French electricity company), ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration = school for public administration), HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré = public housing, which houses 25% of French households), HS (Hors Service=Out of Order, IVG (Interruption Volontaire de grossesse = legal abortion), ISF (impot sur la fortune = tax on wealth), PJ (police judiciaire = state police), RATP (Paris public transport system), RIB (relevé d'identité bancaire = bank account number document), RMI (Revenu Minimum d'Insertion, the minimum allocation of around 400 Euros/month for anybody who does not qualify for anything else, now called RSA), RTT (Réduction du Temps de Travail = additional days off resulting from the legal constraint of the 35-hour week), SDF (Sans Domicile Fixe = homeless), SMIC (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance = minimum salary), SECU (Social Security), SNCF (Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais = national train company), SVP (s'il vous plait = please), TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse = high-speed train), TVA (value added tax), etc... For political parties : LR (gaullist, center right), PS (socialist, center left), UDI & Modem (Christian democrat), PC (communist), FN & MPF (extreme right), LO & LCR (trotskyist), etc..


Dangerous mistakes !   In France, animals speak French...
 when you (American) say...  a literal translation of ...  the French understand...
"je suis plein" (or : "je suis pleine")  I am full
  • I am drunk (if you are a man)
  • I am pregnant (if you are a woman)
"je suis excité" (or : je suis excitée")  I am excited  I am horny
 "laissez moi vous introduire"  let me introduce you  let me sodomize you

More to come ...


In France, animals do not speak English and may be hard to understand :

  • Cats do miaou (mee-aow)
  • Dogs bark with Ouah Ouah (always twice)
  • Donkeys say Hi Han (Hee Hangh)
  • Roosters say Cocorico , chicken cot cot , ducks coin-coin and birds Cui Cui (quee quee, a sound which has nothing to do with the English "chirp")
  • Cows go Meuh
  • Sheeps say bèèèè (bayhhhhhh)
  • More to come
 Strange French expressions (if translated literally...)    French phonetics...

when they say ...   its literal meaning is...  but in fact it means...
On n'a pas gardé les cochons ensemble  we never kept the pigs together  don't be too familiar with me
 Est-ce que je te demande si ta grand-mère fait du vélo  did I ask you if you grandma rides a bike  don't be indiscreet
 Il m'a tiré les vers du nez  he pulled the worms out of my nose  he forced me to speak

 Le jour où les cons voleront,tu seras chef d'escadrille

 if one day assholes can fly, you'll be squadron leader  you are really stupid
 J'ai pris mon pied  I took my foot  I had a great time
 Entre chien et loup  between dog and wolf  at dusk

More to come ...

DID YOU KNOW THAT … ? In French, three French words are transgender ! They are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. And, in addition to that, the three of them are somehow poetic ! What are these magic words ? Amour, delice et orgue (love, delight and organ). You must say "Un grand amour" (one = masculine) and "Des grandes amours" (several = feminine) and so on. Weird, isnt it ?


The (kind of) English they speak….
Although they have the reputation of not being very gifted for foreign languages, the French love to use English words, in a way sometimes mysterious to American ears. Here are a few examples :

  • Wrong pronunciation : « a sweat-shirt » is pronounced « un sweet »,  a « low cost » flight  sounds like « low coast », etc…
  • Made-up words : girlie means something like « young and cheerful », streeteuse seems to mean " someone who likes to walk",  etc…
  • Words with another meaning : « c’est trash » means « it’s a mess », « c’est rock’n roll » means complicated or animated, « je suis cash » means "I am frank", etc…
  • More to come

DID YOU KNOW THAT ..... ? If you look carefully, you'll notice that, in public buildings and in the street, when something in French (an explanation, a warning etc) is translated, it is always translated into TWO languages, English and another one. Why? It is one of the provisions of the Loi Toubon : it is to avoid to give the impression that English is a quasi-official national language!


If you want to express your feelings phonetically, it may also be different :

  • In French, yum-yum is "miam-miam"
  • Ouch is "aïe" (like eye)
  • knock-knock is 'toc-toc" and tick-tock is "tic-tac"
  • Yuk is pouah or "beurk"
  • Wow is "Oh-La-La"
  • Whatever is "bof"
  • Whew is "ouf" (like oof)
  • More to come

DID YOU KNOW that the French Academy was founded by Richelieu in 1635 as the protector of the French language? It's still going strong - even though French has definitely been supplanted by English as the universal language. It is one of the five "academies" which constitute the Institut de France (with Académie des Sciences, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres). The Académie Française has forty members, known as "les Immortels". They meet every Thursday morning to give the "correct definition" of words and review the Dictionary of the Académie, which is published every 50 or 60 years ! They are currently working on the letter "p"...

DID YOU KNOW THAT .....? The longest word in French is the adverb "anticonstitutionnellement" (against the Constitution). Since 1905, every year in fall, before school starts, the new edition of the most popular dictionary, the Petit Larousse Illustré is largely discussed in the medias. Sociologists and linguists comment the newly admitted and newly eliminated words.

Help us complete this page and see Harriet Welty Rochefort's chapter on Politesse in French Toast for more examples of the unwritten codes and nuances of the French language. Do you know what "mot de Cambronne" means ? Have you made any major booboos in French? Read our page on intercultural differences

DID YOU KNOWTHAT.....? Some "faux amis" in politics : in French, a "liberal" is a right-wing supporter of the market (as opposed to a "dirigiste" who supports state-owned companies), a "radical" or a "radical-socialiste" belongs to a center-right party (which was a left-wing party a century ago!)....

To related pages : The French language (#1), French literature, education, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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