Friday’s French – special

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Special is a very special word and very rarely translated by spécial in French and vice versa. Special est un mot très particulier qu’on traduit rarement par spécial en français et vice versa. Now that’s an easy meaning to translate. What is more difficult in finding an equivalent term when we want to talk about a special day or a special friend.

Huîtres spéciales which we eat every Sunday in season

Huîtres spéciales which we eat every Sunday in season

The Chambers Dictionary gives as synonyms: particular, peculiar, distinctive, exceptional, additional to ordinary, detailed, intimate, designed for a special purpose and confined or mainly applied to a particular subject. So first you’ll have to decide why your day or friend is special. You’d probably talk about une journée exceptionnelle and une amie intime.

A special offer, on the other hand, is quite simply une promotion.

So what does spécial mean? Does it ever have the same meaning in French and English?  Yes, in certain cases, it does.

Il a reçu une formation spéciale = He was given special training.

Elle a bénéficié d’une faveur spéciale = She was given a special favour.

Comme il n’y pas de conduite assistée, conduire une voiture ancienne c’est spécial = With no power steering, driving an old car can be challenging.

But spécial can have an entirely different meaning when applied to people. If we were to say elle est vraiment spéciale, I would mean that her mentality or behaviour is not within the norm. She has a strange/bizarre way of acting/looking at things. It is definitely not a compliment!

Spécial can also mean deviant. Il a des moeurs spéciales means that he has certain tendencies not elaborated upon and is a euphemism.

And, of course, huîtres spéciales are those lovely juicy oysters fattened in small numbers in deep oyster parks which have a sort of sweet salty lingering taste called noisette (hazelnut) in French.

Do you have other examples of special and spécial?

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8 Responses to Friday’s French – special

  1. Susan Walter says:

    Describing someone as spécial may not exactly be a compliment, but it often isn’t an insult either. It is often an acknowledgement that someone is out of the ordinary and doesn’t fit in with those around them, and is thus difficult to deal with. In English you might describe someone as an orginal, but in French they would be spécial. To describe something as original in French is generally is a mild insult (like euphemistically saying something is ‘interesting’ in English).

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      That’s interesting, because for me “original” in French is more positive than “spécial“. I asked my French translators’ list what “spécial” means for them and the consensus is that it is not a compliment, but rather a mild insult when used in the context I indicated. “Original” is more neutral.

      Here are some of the answers:

      d’un caractère difficile ou à prendre avec des pincettes, en tout cas pas un compliment,
      C’est clair que ce n’est pas un compliment, ça veut dire étrange, qui n’a pas un comportement habituel, mais qu’on fait avec!

      Peut-être “difficile”, qui n’a pas un comportement conforme aux usages à ce qu’on peut attendre.
      Il est spécial n’est pas du tout un compliment, c’est être différent, mais au sens négatif en général. Les “djeuns” disent également “être space”.
      Un euphémisme pour dire qu’il est un peu psychopathe sur les bords.
      “Elle est vraiment spéciale” veut dire qu’elle ne se comporte pas conformément à ce que l’on attendrait des gens en général, même dans des situations banales, ce qui s’étend à sa manière de voir les choses, à ses opinions. Elle a son monde à elle et, pour cette raison, peut ne pas être très sociale. Il y a dans cette expression quelque chose qui prévient qu’on doit se montrer vigilant dans nos rapports avec cette personne, que ces rapports peuvent être compliqués, même concernant des détails. Être spécial dans ce sens, ce n’est pas la même chose que d’être « un original » (cela ne présage pas particulièrement de difficultés relationnelles), mais être original s’en rapproche.

  2. Susan Walter says:

    I’ve just had a conversation with my friend and neighbour Sylvie who used the word spéciale to describe driving classic cars. She meant it in the sense of ‘challenging’ — we were talking about the lack of power steering and how physically demanding it is, especially for women. She has had old cars, so was speaking from experience. I would say this is the most common sense for which I hear the word used. It’s not used as an insult, just as a rueful acknowledgement of difficulty.

  3. Susan Walter says:

    By all means add my comment to the post. I’m still not convinced that describing someone as spécial is always an insult, btw, just based on my personal experience of two particular people who were described to me like that. In one case the speaker (French) was someone I know well, describing someone (French) from a local family with a rather tragic history and bohemian approach to life — difficult, with a history of mental illness, but valued and to be made allowances for. In the second case, the person described (by a French person who was close to them) as such was someone (French) I know well — difficult, possibly bi-polar, clever, artistic, but often quite pugnatious and opinionated. I would say that difficult or challenging would be the English equivalents here, and that there is an underlying positive note to the word — they may be a pain, but one is proud of their achievements.

    Having been on the receiving end of ‘original’ from French people (not to describe people, but design choices and the like) I may be being overly sensitive, but I would say it can be used in the same way English speakers would use ‘hmm, it’s different’ or ‘interesting’ when it’s not to their taste, but they don’t want to give offence.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Thanks. I didn’t actually say “insult”, just not a compliment. However, in your two examples, difficult or challenging are definitely better translations in English. And I certainly agree that “original” can be positive. It all depends on who is using the term.

  4. Linda says:

    First, I would like to let you know how much I love your blog, and I am so glad that I happened upon it ! I read this last post with great interest, and have especially enjoyed the comments about this. We just arrived in Paris over the weekend, and funny that after reading Susan’s comments about the word “original”, the very word was used last night in a conversation I had with the owner of the restaurant where we had dinner. Now I am left wondering about the meaning of the word, as he used it. We were paying for our meal with our Visa card, which has on it a picture of the Eiffel Tower. I saw him looking at it as though interested, and I said, “Vous aimez?”, to which he gave me a very friendly smile, and replied, “Oui… j’ai jamais vu ca, j’avoue que c’est original !”. So… was this a mild insult, or was he just saying that it was “novel” ? I am so curious, now. Oh, the subtleties involved with translation !

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Welcome to Paris, Linda! His comment was completely positive and definitely means “novel”. I am going to go back and add something to the post. There is a big difference between saying that a person is “original” and saying the same thing about an object or an action. C’est un original and c’est original are not at all the same!

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