Friday’s French: bonne femme, nana, belle plante, gonzesse

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An Australian friend asked me recently exactly what bonne femme meant and whether or not it’s derogatory. A French friend of hers seemed to be using it all time and told her it has no real significance. Well, maybe that’s so in his vocabulary, but frankly, I wouldn’t like someone to call ME a bonne femme.


So why, you may ask, would being called what ostensibly means a “good woman” not be welcome? Well, I guess it’s because you don’t refer to people as bon in French in the English sense of “good”. To say, “she’s a good woman”, you’d have to say c’est quelqu’un de bien. You could also say C’est une femme bien but there is a slight nuance, more the idea of being nice rather than good. Des gens bien are nice or decent people rather than good. Un type bien is a nice guy or a nice bloke.

“She’s a good secretary” would be expressed as elle est très bien comme secrétaire. “He’s a good chap” would be c’est un brave type. C’est une brave femme could also mean “a good woman” in the sense of someone who overcomes obstacles, is hardworking and well-meaning.

So I asked Jean Michel about bonne femme, since he’s the Frenchie, but I didn’t get very far.

If you say sacrée bonne femme, he tells me, you’re referring to someone who’s annoying – or quite the opposite! Otherwise, he doesn’t really know.

C’est la bonne femme qui travaille à la boulangerie would seem to indicate that the person has a lot of character.

Perhaps calling someone a bonne femme is not particularly polite but isn’t exactly derogatory either. What do you think?

My friend then asked about nana, nénette and sacrée nana. No problem here. Nana is simply slang for girl, about the same register as chick. It can also mean girlfriend. Nénette is just an diminutive while sacrée nana can be negative or positive depending on the context.

And while we’re on the subject of women, we might take a look at some other expressions use to describe the fairer sex.

The first time I heard c’est une belle plante, I thought it was horrible, but I suppose it’s no worse than “she’s a fine specimen”. It refers to her figure rather than her face. It’s definitely positive in any case.

Gonzesse, on the other hand, is definitely derogatory and vulgar and saying that a man is une vraie gonzesse means he isn’t virile enough. It can also mean prostitute and a woman who is easily fooled.

Do you know any other similar expressions?


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24 thoughts on “Friday’s French: bonne femme, nana, belle plante, gonzesse”

    1. Hi Jane, I’ve added an explanation of why “bonne femme” is not a good thing to the post since you are no doubt not the only person who’s wondering! I hope it’s a little clearer. Thank you for asking!
      And thank you for the lovely mention on your post. How long are you in Paris? We are currently in Blois but will be there next week in which case we could catch up.

  1. Oh, complex matter!

    Ok, first: it’s not nanette, but nénette. 🙂

    “Bonne femme” is not necessarily derogatory, but most of the time it somehow is. It implies a loud, obnoxious woman. I would probably often translate it as “that woman”. La bonne femme de la boulangerie – that woman at the bakery.
    But “c’est une sacrée bonne femme” can also be very admirative: “that’s some woman you have there!” “une sacrée bonne femme” is someone who as done something admirable. Or, something huge in the negative sense (but in my opinion it is more positive).
    “sa bonne femme” would be “his old lady”.

    “Nana” is a term from the 1980s. “Une nana” is a girl, a chick, a woman. It’s not derogatory at all. “Nénette” is a derivative and is used by some people just like “nana”. I would classify it as “langage familier”, but not really as slang (in German, I would call it “Umgangssprache”). I (46) use “nana”, my sister-in-law (49) uses “nénette” all the time.

    “Une belle plante” is a good-looking woman and it puts the accent on her body, not on her pretty face. Usually I’d associate with an hour-glass figure or a bigger bust.

    “Gonzesse” is slang for “bonne femme”, with the same implications.

    1. Thank you, Pat, for your comments. I’ve corrected nénette (oh dear!) and added a phrase about sacrée bonne femme and belle plante.

      1. Btw, I have thought a bit more about “gonzesse”. I’ve never heard “gonzesse” for prostitute or for a woman who is easily fooled. I know it as a slang word for “woman”, mostly said by men aged 30-60. “Ah, les gonzesses, toutes les mêmes…”, “c’est bien une idée de gonzesse, ça”. These sentences could also be used with “bonne femme”.
        And “les lettres de noblesse” of the word “gonzesse” were given by Renaud:
        (how incredibly young he looks in that video…)

  2. thank you so muxh for this discussion, i can put in my two cents worth if you like: Bonne femme refers to women who are NOT bourgeois/noble, usually with no diplome, and work with their hands. It implies more than just a woman with “character”. For example, Angela Merkel or Christine Largarde are women with some characters (otherwise they would not have made it where they are now), but NO ONE would refer to them as “bonne femme”. It is similar to a “fishwife”. “nana” is derogatory or – at its mildest sense- disrespectful. It comes from the character in Zola’ book “Nana”. When one says “cet nana”, it is similar to “what’s-her-name”. Anti-sarkozists used to call his then girlfriend carla bruni “his Nana” (“his squeeze”) before they got married. Sounds very backwards and feudal…non? learning french is fun.

  3. One of the other terms I have heard is vieillarde .

    I had a look at the Larousse dictionary as I have found that some French friends have suggested that it is pejorative whilst others disagree. Interestingly Larousse advises that this negative nuance is not necessarily the case these days.
    Vieillarde n.f. = femme marquée par le grand âge, est littéraire et péjoratif : « Une vieillarde hideuse qui tient une horrible auberge » (V. Hugo). La nuance péjorative est absente chez beaucoup d’auteurs contemporains : « Mme Vincent et deux autres vieillardes dont je ne sais plus le nom » (A. Gide).
    Dans le registre courant, c’est vieille qui tient lieu d’équivalent féminin à vieillard : « Pourriez-vous me dire pourquoi il y a de beaux vieillards et point de belles vieilles » (Diderot).

    I guess this would be reflected in other words, and why we find that some people deem a word to have negative connotations whilst others do not agree with this interpretation.

    1. I’ve never thought that veillarde had negative connotations except insofar as being old is negative! But it would be more polite to say vieille dame (and not vieille femme).

    2. where there are two terms to use and the speaker chooses one over the other, there is a social connotation to it. One can perfectly uses “une femme agee” or “une dame agee” instead of “une vieillarde”. At my kids’ school, use of “vieillarde” is prohibited as it is deemed impolite (i.e. kids should show respect to all adults). “Negative” is maybe too strong. One could say that this type of expressions shows “disrespect” (intentional or not) on the part of the speaker to the subject described.

      1. I’ve been having a look at my Robert Dictionnaire historique de la langue française now that I’m back in Paris and have access to all my books! Vieillard dates back to 1190 vieillart 1155) and initially meant a very old person. The term was used collectively in law and administration (1833) to mean persons over the age of 64. Today, it has been replaced by personnes âgées and, more recently, troisième âge (and now seniors, but that’s my note). For a long time, vieille was the feminine of vieillard. The derivative vieillarde (1788, Féraud) was initially not derogatory, but became more so (1847), after which it was used as the feminine of vieillard.

        So it has has a somewhat chequered existence!

      2. It’s interesting that the use of a word is actually prohibited, but it is important, of course, for children to learn not to use disrespectful terms.

  4. hi, all french words end with “-ard” have a negative connation: clochard (vagrant), “bagnard”(prisoner), “fetard”(party animal), “”barvard” (chatterbox), “trouillard”(scardy cat), etc.

    1. I didn’t know that either. Whilst there may be many examples of French words with the suffix -ard that have negative connotations, I don’t find the following negative: canard, brouillard, routard, savoyard.

  5. Hello, in words like “brouillard, “canard”, “-ard” is not a suffix so these words dont come into this category. “Savoyard” is not a chic expression. Parisiens call the residents in the suburbs surrounding Paris “banlieusards”. Suburbs are called “banlieue”. The word “Routard” was invented in 1972 by the founder of a hippie magazine, M. Bizot, who later fonded “guide de routard”. It referred to a traveler with little or money. See also “montaignard” as members of a political party (social democ supporting peasants, etc). French language is still very “pariscentric”, isn’t it?

    1. The adjective from Savoie was originally savoisien, but at the end of the 18th century savoyard was used for labourers from Savoie who came down into the valleys to do seasonal work such as chimney sweeping. It thus came to mean someone who was dirty and uneducated. On the other hand, montagnard was used as early as 1510 to designate people from the mountains and was perfectly neutral. The political connotation of montagnard comes from the time of the French Revolution when the left-wing members of the legislative assembly of 1791 were called Montagnards (forming the Montagne group) while the more moderate ones took the name of Plaine or Marais. Routard was indeed coined by the founder of the Guide du Routard and only applied to trukkies after that. So, it would seem that only the original meaning of montagnard doesn’t fit the negative theory of the suffix “ard”!

    1. Negative is fine in English. “Pejorative”, although it exists, is very formal and quite a lot of people may not be familiar with it. You’d be more likely to use “derogatory” in fact.

      Excellent list!

  6. Hi Rosemary, there is always something nice to read here! (I don’t how I could have missed that one!) Very interesting post, plenty of very good replies!
    I find strange that none of readers mentioned the link between bonhomme et bonne femme….
    None of them is negative per se… but I agree with you that usually people wouldn’t like to be called bonhomme/bonne femme… unless there is something “added” to change the meaning.
    – Quel sacré bonhomme / bonne femme -> nice to hear!
    – Quel drôle de bonhomme / BF ——> well no so nice!
    – C’est qui ce bonhomme / BG ———–> not nice at all!

    Gonzesse is dialect/slang but not necessarily negative at all!
    In Bordeaux we say un gonze/une gonzesse, and for a kid we use un drôle/une drôlesse we have a lot of words that are slowly disappearing… I love them so much, they are our heritage… The language spoken in Bordeaux is called “le bordeluche” (from the name of an inhabitant of Bordeaux: “un bordeluche”) of course it’s mainly french but with some “specific” terms. It’s the language “of the people”, the one they say you should not use, but it is so charming, so telling… It’s our history too!

    1. Hi Patrick, yes, I was surprised you didn’t comment at the time! Thank you for your comment. I didn’t know the term “bordeluche” even though I spent a year in Pau and met quite a lot of people from Bordeaux. I thought they were called “bordelais”. I didn’t realise that drôle and drôlesse were still used either.

      1. You’re right bordelais is the proper name to use… “Bordeluche” is the popular term the “bordelais” use amongt them in this “bordeluche language”.

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