untranslatable French

No love lost in learning French: 7 untranslatable French words

Miranda Lee

Miranda Lee

Hi, I'm Miranda! I studied French and Spanish at university and have spent time working in both France and South America. I spent last summer road-tripping Europe on a vintage double decker bus, to meet and film native speakers all over the continent! My next big language challenge is to learn Mandarin.
Miranda Lee

It has often been said that language is the best reflection of a nation’s culture; the most authentic insight into its people’s mindset and weird and wonderful ways of life. Not too surprising when you think about it, given that language has been the one constant over years and years’ worth of changing history, politics, art, geography – the list goes on.. Each individual language is full of clues and pointers as to how its native speakers really think…

So let’s start with our closest European neighbours, the French! We all know the clichés: romantics at heart, lovers of fine food and wine, effortlessly stylish, very proud of their nationality, and let’s face it, perhaps a tad cold and unfriendly??

We’ve picked out 7 unique and untranslatable French words, to see how they might give us a tip or two about our friends across the pond…

#1 – ‘cocu’ – meaning ‘someone being cheated on’. Huh? We thought the French were all about real love and romance, yet here’s a really common French word that makes us wonder whether in fact they’re all just a bunch of Don Juans.

#2 – ‘dépaysement’ – meaning ‘ the feeling of disorientation and bewilderment that specifically arises when you are not in your home country.’ Right, well we did mention the French were proud and dedicated citizens…

#3 – ‘L’appel du vide’ – literally meaning ‘the call of the void’. It’s an expression used to describe the sudden inexplicable impulse to jump when in a high place or standing on a high ledge. Err, don’t know what this reflects about the French…??

#4 – ‘jolie laide’ – literally meaning “ugly beautiful”, this phrase is used to describe someone who is unconventionally beautiful. The original reference is from a Serge Gainsbourg song “Laide Jolie Laide” about his daughter Charlotte, for “the vaguely awkward way she inhabits her lanky body”. Charming! I guess??!

#5 – ‘L’esprit d’escalier’ – literally meaning “staircase wit”. It’s for all those really annoying moments when you can only think of a great comeback once you’ve left the argument. Knowing that arguing and debating are national sports in France (as my French friends tell me) this apparently happens a lot!

#6 – ‘Flâner’ – meaning ‘to leisurely stroll the streets of Paris, without any particular purpose or destination.’ I mean, you can’t get much more French than that. It was invented in the 19th century by the Parisian literary crowd, to describe the listless days they would spend simply walking for the pleasure of soaking up the beauty of the city. Sounds bloody marvellous to me!

#7 – “Chanter en yaourt/yaourter” – literally “to yoghurt,” this expression doesn’t mean to pie someone in the face with yoghurt (because that doesn’t seem very French, does it now), but rather to describe someone trying to sing in a foreign language, but getting the words wrong or making them up instead. Come on – we’ve all been there..and I’m glad to know the French have got a word for it!

Do you know any other untranslatable French words? We’d love to hear them if so! Be sure to check out this post for some of our top French idioms and this one for some beginner phrases to get you started.

 

 

 

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Miranda Lee

Hi, I'm Miranda! I studied French and Spanish at university and have spent time working in both France and South America. I spent last summer road-tripping Europe on a vintage double decker bus, to meet and film native speakers all over the continent! My next big language challenge is to learn Mandarin.