Friday’s French – mondain, mundane & banal

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“She’s very mundane”, a bilingual French-English speaker said to me recently, obviously thinking that mundane means the same thing as mondain. To start off with, in English, we wouldn’t use mundane to describe a person, but rather something more abstract such as life or existence. Mundane means dull and ordinary or relating to ordinary life on earth rather than to spiritual things.

Une boutique pour les mondaines
Une boutique pour les mondaines

Mondain, on the other hand, relates to the social life of what the French now surprisingly call people and what we call celebrities. It also refers the social habits of the bourgeoisie in which relations and conversations are always superficial.

What my friend really meant to say is “She’s a socialite”. Whenever we want to express the idea of mondain, we nearly always need to have society or social in there somewhere.

Elle mène une vie mondaine = She’s a socialite.

Il a le goût pour la vie mondaine = He has a taste for society life (or the high life).

Ce festival est l’évènement mondain de l’année = The festival is the society event of the year.

“Mundane”, on the other hand, probably needs a different translation every time.

On a more mundane level = au niveau pratique

Mundane task = tâche courante

A mundane concern = préoccupation terre-à-terre

I’ve kept “mundane existence” for last because it’s a bit trickier as it has two meanings. A mundane existence can refer to a non-spiritual existence in which case it would be une existence terrestre or profane. However if we’re just referring to the fact that it’s dull and ordinary, we would say une existence banale ou une vie banale.

Speaking of banal, that’s another word which doesn’t mean quite the same in French and in English. Actually, it’s not the meaning that differs so much as the usage. Banal in English means commonplace or trivial, which is more or less what it means in French, particularly when it refers to a lack of originality. However, in English, we don’t say people are banal as we do in French; we say they’re ordinary or run-of-the-mill.

Un personnage peu banal = an unusual character

Une conversation or une idée banale = a trite or banal conversation or idea

Une vie banale could also be translated as a humdrum life.

Une grippe banale = a common case of flu

And to finish up, here’s a very common expression in French: Ce n’est pas banal.

How would you say it in English? And maybe you have some other examples (with their translations!) of mundane, mondain and banal.

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8 thoughts on “Friday’s French – mondain, mundane & banal”

  1. Ce n’est pas banal = It’s out of the ordinary. I have to be careful not to use commun when I mean banal. It’s a trap I’m always falling into.

    Thinking of mondaine I saw Kim Kardashian described in French as la bimbo télévisuelle the other day, which I thought was wonderful. I loved that in a French regional newspaper you have to spell out who she is, but I assume ‘bimbo’ doesn’t have quite the perjorative connotations in French that it does in English.

    1. Yes, that’s what ce n’est pas banal means. Common and commun are more false cognates – commun often means joint.

      I love your story about bimbo – one of those words that the French have adopted without knowing the register. Haven’t come up with an equivalent in French yet.

  2. Very interesting. Before reading this I thought mondain translated as worldly. But I don’t quite understand what the French mean by bimbo if it has a different meaning from the English?
    Also now that I’ve learnt ce n’est pas banal means out of the ordinary. What is the connotation of ce n’est pas normal?
    C’est normal – seems to be used a lot. Can the negative form also mean out of the ordinary? Or does it have a more negative association? Cheers, Pamela

    1. Hi Pamela. It’s true, I could have mentioned worldly but it didn’t occur to me. In French, we would probably say “quelqu’un qui a de l’expérience” ou maybe “un homme averti”.

      By bimbo I think they mean the same thing as in English, except that they don’t realise it’s quite so derogatory.

      Il est 10 heures et il n’est pas chez lui. Ce n’est pas normal would mean “It’s 10 o’clock and he’s not home. That’s most unusual”.

      C’est normal, on the other hand, has quite a lot of different meanings. How about I use it for my next Friday’s French?

  3. when folks relate a personal experience and the listeners find the story “peu banale”, what does that mean?

    1. Hi Gerry, it’s so typical of the French way of replying negatively. “Peu banale” literally means its not ordinary, so it’s like saying “what an unusual story” or “what an exceptional thing to have happened”. Does that fit your context?

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