Tag Archives: French language

Friday’s French – fauchage & faux

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There was a sign in front of our house this week saying fauchage which actually means scything or reaping. The word for scythe is faux. Obviously the council workers were not going to appear with scythes. Fauchage now also means mowing or cutting with machines.


It got me thinking about the word faux which also means false. Faux meaning scythe comes from the Latin falx falcis whereas the adjective meaning false comes from falsus, from fallere, to deceive. I was a little disappointed to learn they actually have nothing in common! I’d worked out my own little scenario.

The verb faucher has a couple of other meanings. One you often (unfortunately) hear on the news has to do with car accidents. Il a été fauché  par un bolide = He was knocked over by a car going at top speed.

Il a été fauché par la Mort is a euphemism for death, since the symbol of Death is the scythe.

Faucher is also slang for steal: il m’a fauché mon portefeuille (he stole my wallet) and as a result, je suis fauché means I’m broke ! If you want to go one step further, you can say fauché comme les blés (completely broke), blé meaning wheat.

The noun fauche means thieving. Il y a beaucoup de fauche dans le métro = there’s a lot of thieving in the metro. But it’s not a word you hear often.

Fauchaison is reaping or mowing time (using a scythe, that is) but I don’t imagine it’s the sort of word you would really have much use for.

To go back to the adjective faux, it has a whole lot of other uses, all similar in meaning to false. Un faux billet is a forged or fake banknote while fausse monnaie is forged currency.

Faux marbre is imitation marble while faux bijou is fake or imitation jewellery.

Faux papiers , quite logically are false or  forged identity papers.

When someone says c’est faux, they mean it’s wrong or not true not that it’s false.

If you ring a wrong number, it’s a faux numéro, which somehow makes it sound as though you didn’t make the mistake.

An instrument that is faux is out of tune and not a fake which is interesting. Elle chante faux means she sings out of tune which is think is a bit hard.

And we all know about a faux pas, don’t we ?

I’m sure you’ve got other examples of faux.

Friday’s French: confondre is confusing!

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Confusing is a word we use quite a bit in English to mean that something is unclear and difficult to understand. e.g. “The information he gave me is confusing.” If I confuse John and Paul, it means that I wrongly think that John is Paul and Paul is John. Now I hope I’m not confusing you too much!

Un champignon qu'il ne faut jamais confondre !
Un champignon qu’il ne faut jamais confondre ! The fly agaric – reputed poisonous and hallucinatory – but also said to be edible if cooked the right way.

Now, to say the same thing in French is a little bit complicated. The verb confondre does exist and can be used in the second example: Je confonds toujours John avec Paul. That’s easy. It can also be used without avec as in the caption above where it’s understood that you mustn’t confuse the fly agaric with any other mushrooms (not that you can – it’s very distinctive).

However, to say that “information is confusing” requires a slightly different approach. Les informations sont confuses is not quite the same meaning. [Note the plural in French and the singular in English]. In the first case, the information has not been presented correctly, while in the second, it may be the person’s lack of knowledge of the subject that prevents them from understanding. A bit confusing, huh?

Les informations ne sont pas claires is probably the most usual way of expressing the idea. You may already have noticed that French often uses a negative when a positive would be used in English.

So how are we going to translate “a bit confusing”? I would tend to say difficile à comprendre or  pas vraiment clair but you might have some other ideas.

Now if you say to someone, je suis confuse, it doesn’t mean you are confused at all, but that you are embarrassed about something you’ve said or done! It’s actually a veiled apology.

How about “You’re only confusing the issue”?  Vous compliquez tout! Vous ne faites qu’embrouiller les choses. In fact embrouiller which means obscurcir, compliquer une question, une affaire, y mettre la confusion often conveys the same meaning as the English verb confuse. Tu ne fais que m’embrouiller: you’re confusing me. Il s’embrouille: he gets muddled, he gets confused. We could say les informations sont embrouillées to mean that the information is not presented clearly.

Now it’s over to you. Let’s have some suggestions on how to translate the following sentences:

1) Are you still confused about how to use confuse in French?

2) I was confused when nothing happened.

3) Imminent and eminent are easily confused words.

Are there any other examples of confuse that you don’t know how to say in French?

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Friday’s French – au revoir and salut

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When I first moved to France in 1975, I don’t remember hearing people saying anything other than au revoir and adieu for goodbye. I had learnt that you only said adieu if you weren’t ever going to see the person again or at least for a long time. I was a bit surprised to hear it used as a greeting as well Adieu ! Comment vas-tu ? But it turns out that it is only in use in the south of France and I was in Béarn, near the Pyrenees. (Dieu = god, by the way).

In any case, just having au revoir made things easier (I didn’t ever use adieu). Since then, I’ve come to hear and use other expressions, such as ciao and salut. Ciao is practically universal of course and is very useful in countries such as Bulgaria where everything else is unpronounceable. It’s sometimes doubled here as well: ciao, ciao.

Salut is a different kettle of fish. It used to think it was the beginning of the prayer, Hail Mary: Salut Marie, but it is actually Je vous salue Marie; the verb saluer is used to mean salute, greet, take one’s leave, wave to, pay tribute to, etc. depending the context.

Saluez-le de ma part = give him my regards.

Il salua (le public) = he bowed (to the audience).

Salut has been reintroduced into everyday language with a much less formal register. Kids will say salut to each other both as a greeting and goodbye. Salut les mecs ! (mec is slang for man). Adults use it among friends or at informal gatherings. Salut tout le monde ! You would never use it with a shopkeeper or your doctor or someone you’ve just met. Some people never use it and consider it to be slang.

Given that you can never go wrong with bonjour and au revoir it’s probably best to avoid salut unless the other person has used it first.

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Friday’s French – patrimoine, immobilier, mobilier & immeuble

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With the journées du patrimoine coming up, I thought I’d take a look at the word patrimoine. It’s an interesting word because it has so many different meanings all connected with its Latin origin of patrimonium meaning property inherited from a father.

Let’s start with the journées du patrimoine, which is part of the European Heritage Days initiative launched by the Council of Europe in 1991. The meaning is the same as the Unesco World Heritage List except that in French it’s just patrimoine mondial. You don’t need to follow it with “list” or “site” e.g. Capitale de la Chrétienté  au Moyen-âge, Avignon a gardé de son Histoire un patrimoine d’exception dont une grande partie est inscrite au Patrimoine Mondial de l’Unesco. Points for the person who finds a decent translation for that sentence!

The S-bend from the Schlogen blick
Wachau, a  Unesco world heritage site in Austria

Then we have patrimoine héréditaire – inheritance – which obviously means that a patrimoine is not necessarily inherited. Any one can have a patrimoine immobilier, for example, and  it doesn’t have to be inherited. In this case, we’d talk about property or real estate in English. Patrimoine social, on the other hand, designates public housing.

While we’re at it, we can have a look at immobilier which is opposed to mobilier. You’ve no doubt seen “Agence immobilière” on what is obviously a real estate office. The root is mobilis from the very movere to move which means that immobilier can’t be moved. In French, it’s both an adjective and a noun: investir dans l’immobilier  – to invest in real estate.

There’s another word that home owners in France will be familiar with and that’s foncier as in taxe foncière or property tax. The word comes from fonds de terre, fonds having the same root as our fund, and terre meaning earth. A property owner is a propriétaire foncier and income from property is revenus fonciers (note the plural).

Mobilier is the opposite: it can be moved, and is the usual word for furniture. It also has the more technical meaning of personal or movable property. Mobilier de bureau is office furniture, as you would expect and mobilier urban is street furniture, which always seems less strange to me in French than in English.

And what do we with fixtures and fittings in French? The usual term is aménagements intérieurs while fixtures in a building in legal terms is bien immeuble. But you may already have heard immeuble in another context.

In legal terms, it means real estate, but is generally used to mean a block of flats or offices i.e. un immeuble d’habitation or un immeuble de bureaux. Un immeuble de sept étages has a ground floor and seven upper floors, known as an eight-storey building in the US, if I’m not mistaken and a seven-floor building in the UK and Australia. And just in case you are thinking of investing here, an investment property is un immeuble de rapport.

And if you’re in France or Europe on 14th or 15th September, enjoy the journées des patrimoine.

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Friday’s French – consommer

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It’s the next day after a wedding. Everyone’s having a late breakfast, including the groom who’s just joined us. The bride is still upstairs in their bedroom. This, of course, wouldn’t have happened in the olden days. They would have already been off on their honeymoon.


As-tu consommé?” asks one of the guests. “Yes”, he replies, and everyone laughs. I am shocked! Fancy using the term consommer (to consume) in that context. How vulgar can you get. Then I realise that it must mean “consumate” as well.

I might add that it also means to perpetrate a crime …

It’s one of those French verbs that needs a different translation nearly every time in English. You could conceivably say “consume” in English when talking about food or petrol consumption, for example, but it certainly wouldn’t be natural.

On consomme beaucoup de fruits chez nous – we eat a lot of fruit in our family.

Cette machine consomme beaucoup d’eau – this machine uses up a lot of water

Le lot a été consommé par cette opération – the batch was entirely consumed by this operation

In fact, in English, we usually use the word consumption rather than consume, a typical case of a verb being replaced by a noun.

La voiture consomme 8 litres au 100 km – the gas/petrol consumption is 8 litres per 100 k.

La France est le pays où l’on consomme le plus de vin – France is the country with the highest wine consumption.

Another typical example is à consommer de préférence avant le 10/09/2013 – best before 10/09/2013.

On the opposite end of consummating a marriage, you can say la rupture est consommée, meaning the break-up is complete.

Do you have any other examples?

Friday’s French – feu

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A Facebook comment by an Australian cousin currently living in France has inspired this post:

Dear smokers of France,
Although I have an odd accent, I will understand you if you ask me for a lighter. Making expansive gestures and asking “Do you ‘ave zee fire?” is only going to result in me busting out some sweet dance moves to prove that yes, I do indeed ‘ave zee fire.

Vous avez du feu?” is a well-known opening gambit in French among cigarette smokers. It’s a classic example of how a word in one language can have an entirely different meaning in another.

Feu is used in a large number of French expressions, starting with cars and traffic lights.

feu antibrouillard = fog light or lamp

feu arrière = tail or rear light

feu clignotant = flashing light/blinker/indicator

feux de croisement = dipped headlights, low beams

feux de détresse = hazard (warning lights), usually called warning in French, pronounced waa-ning.

feux de recul = reversing/back-up lights

feu vert/orange/rouge = green/amber/red light, traffic lights and feu rouge is more specifically used to mean traffic lights in general e.g. tournez à gauche au prochain feu rouge = turn left at the next set of traffic lights, which is a bit odd if you think about it because you should really be turning at the green light!

Bonfire is interesting, because it’s called a feu de joies in French in reference to the fact that it provides a warm place that people can gather around at nighttime and enjoy themselves. Despite appearances, the “bon” in “bonfire” does not mean “good” but “bones”, originally denoting a fire on which bones were burnt, or for burning heretics. Much nicer in French!

Not surprisingly, a coup de feu is a gunshot, like our gunfire.

The hot plates on the stove are also called feux which means that a stove with three burners or rings is a cuisinière à trois feux though this is probably dying out as more ceramic cooking tops come into use, giving trois plaques.

An expression that’s really expressive is Il a le feu au cul, because it so exactly describes drivers that tear past you on the motorway, flashing their headlines for you to get out of the way when you’re already sitting on 130 kph. It has sexual meaning as well. Cul is a three-letter word for backside. I could probably do a whole post on it alone but the blog would be inundated with spam as a result! Suffice to say that there are a whole lot of expressions connected with the word.

Friday’s French – offrir

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You’ve probably heard of faux amis, literally “false friends” or “false cognates”, which are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. The word blocage which I talked about last week is an excellent example. Sometimes the meaning is totally different while in other cases, it’s quite subtle.

Take offrir and “offer”. Maybe you think they mean the same thing, but they are really not interchangeable at all.

We’re walking along, looking at the market stalls. I see something I like, but hesitate to buy it. Je te l’offre, says my husband. That means that he’s going to pay. We wouldn’t say in English “I’ll offer it to you”, but something more along the lines of “Why don’t I get it for you?” or “My treat”.

If I want to tell someone that my husband bought me a watch for my birthday, I’d say, Mon mari m’a offert une montre pour mon anniversaire rather than Mon mari m’a acheté une montre pour mon anniversaire which is perfectly correct but not nearly as elegant. Jean Michel would certainly not say it!

If I were to say, “my husband offered me a watch for my birthday”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what he ended up buying. What it really means is that he “offered to buy me a watch” and I could say yes or no.


In English, we talk about offering flowers and it’s the same in French : il m’a offert des fleurs.

We also offer someone a drink in English; in French we would say proposer à boire or offrir à boire when there is no danger of confusion. When there is a possibility of refusal, proposer is usually the appropriate  term. Note the use of boire (to drink) for “a drink”. Even a toddler will say à boire if he’s thirsty or à manger if he’s hungry and not boisson or nourriture.

“Il m’a proposé deux vins différents” is quite different from “il m’a offert deux vins différents”. In the first case, he gave me a choice of two different wines while in the second case he gave them to me as a present.

“I offered to help him” = J’ai proposé de l’aider whereas Je lui ai proposé de l’aide could mean that I offered him financial help.

And here’s another time we say “offer” in English but not offrir in French. “I’ll raise the subject when a suitable occasion offers itself” = Je lui en parlerai lorsque l’occasion se présentera. And there’s that very annoying future tense that you have to use in French when we use the present in English. Remember the rule: when future is implied, future must be used and especially with quand and lorsque.

To offer one’s sympathy is faire/présenter/offrir ses condoléances. And while we’re on the subject, an American friend asked me recently what she should say to her neighbour whose wife had just died. The answer is very simple. You shake the person’s hand and simply say Toutes mes condoléances or Je vous/te présente toutes mes condoléances. In English, we would say “I’m very sorry about your wife”,”You and your family are in my thoughts”, “I am sorry for your loss” “You have my deepest sympathy” and so on.

Friday’s French – merde

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When kids start to learn a foreign language, the first thing they do is to find out how to say all the four (or five) letter words they know. They’re called gros mots or coarse words in French.

I never say “shit” in English but I do occasionally say merde because for some unknown reason it isn’t nearly as vulgar in French as it is in English. I guess that explains the English expression “excuse/pardon my French”.

The equivalent of “sugar” is mercredi (Wednesday) and a softer variant is merdum with the emphasis on the last syllable.

Buren columns with the temporary Comédie Française theatre on the left
Buren columns with the temporary Comédie Française theatre on the left

But that isn’t actually the subject of this post. Merde is what you say to an actor or singer before a performance pour conjurer le sort, just as we say “break a leg” because wishing someone good luck might bring exactly the opposite.

It seems that the use of merde in French comes from the time when people drew up in front of the theatre in horse-drawn carriages, thus littering the pavement with horse dung. Since the amount deposited was directly proportional to the number of people attending the play, it was the done thing to wish the actors beaucoup de merdes.

And while we’re on the subject of superstition and actors, you can give an actress roses but never carnations. It seems that when actors were employed permanently, the director used to give a bouquet of roses to the actresses whose contracts were renewed but only cheaper carnations to the others.

You’re not supposed to whistle on stage or in the wings either as it could bring bad luck. There are two possible explanations for this. Back in the old days, stage hands used to whistle instructions to each other when changing scenery which meant that if the actors started whistling too, it could create confusion.  Or it could come from the time when gas lighting was used in the theatre. If the pilot light went out when the lights were dimmed, gas could escape causing an explosion. The escaping gas made a characteristic whistling sound which could be overridden by any other kind of whistling.

Another word you can’t use is corde (rope) which is replaced by guinde. Depending on the time and place, saying corde was considered “fatal” and could lead to death while in others, you had to buy drinks for everyone within hearing distance. It seems it’s a navy superstition where a rope is considered to be an instrument of torture. The only corde present in a theatre is a corde à piano which has nothing to do with music but is made of steel and used to open and close the curtain.

Which brings me to rideau which is the normal term for curtain and is prohibited in the theatre because it’s supposed to bring bad luck. Pendrillon is used instead or the more recent term taps. I don’t know why.

The colour green is considered bad luck too, except for clowns. There are several explanations here: green was not an attractive colour under 19th century lighting; the copper or cyanide oxide used to dye clothing is poisonous; and Molière, one of France’s most famous actors/playwrights, was wearing green at his last performance at the Comédie Française before he died.

Thank you, French Wikipedia, for all these little tidbits.

Friday’s French – blocage

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I’m introducing an Australian acquaintance to Jean Michel. “Bonjour”,  she says, then turning to me, somewhat flustered, “I’m tongue-tied. How do I say that in French?”

“Langue coupée”, I say rather doubtfully. “No, I know, je suis bloquée, j’ai un blocage.” “Ah, then it doesn’t mean the same as the English word ‘blockage'”, she laughs.

Definitely not!

Bloquer et blocage are actually used quite a lot in French and are often rather annoying to translate into English.

La porte est bloquée : I can’t get the door open.

Il s’est garé trop près, il a complètement bloqué la sortie : he parked too close to me and stopped me getting out.

Bloquer la vis: turn the screw until it won’t go any further.

Il faut bloquer la porte avec une chaise : you have to keep the door open with a chair.

So how do you say “blockage” in French? In the medical sense, it’s obstruction except when it’s intestinal and then it’s occlusion.

You can sometimes use boucher as well e.g. l’évier est bouché: the drain’s blocked.

I should also mention that people are often intimidated about speaking French in front of me, but they shouldn’t be. I’m always so grateful that they can talk to Jean Michel who is a victim of the atrocious French language teaching system and has a poor memory for vocabulary. Remember – I was once a beginner too!

Friday’s French – comme une vache espagnole

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Susan from Days on the Claise published a post recently about a florist shop called Vachement Fleurs. She also mentioned in a comment that her neighbour once told her she spoke French comme une vache espagnole – like a Spanish cow. What an insult! But it set me thinking about vache and its variants.

Vachement Fleurs (photo by Susan Walter
Vachement Fleurs (photo by Susan Walter)

Vache espagnole (1627) probably comes from Basque espagnol which is more understandable though still rude.

I have a French friend whose favourite expression – I can hear him saying it as I write – is “Oh, la vache !” which is his empathetic reaction to anything unpleasant.

When you speak of someone as a vache as in quelle vache ! – it’s very close of our “what a sod/swine/cow/bastard”. Vache or grosse vache (fat cow) was also used in the past to designate a prostitute.

Vacherie was originally a herd of cows but now means something nasty or bitchy. Dire des vacheries means making nasty remarks. Quelle vacherie de temps could be used very appropriately to describe the horrendous weather we’re having to put up with at the moment in France. Il m’a fait une vacherie means that he played a dirty trick on me.

The adjective vachement developed along the same lines and was originally negative but now is simply used for emphasis. You can say il faisait vachement mauvais (it was really awful weather) just as easily as il faisait vachement beau (it was really good weather).  A very common expression is vachement sympa which means “really cool”.


Jean Michel says he never uses vachement, that it’s not very elegant, but I’ve heard all sorts of people use it and I’m sure he does too.

The first time I heard the word was in Noumea back in the early seventies when I was still at university, in the expression vachement chouette, roughly meaning “it’s pretty good”, which is very strange because a chouette is an owl (the sort without those pointed tufts on their head called aigrettes in French – otherwise they’re called hibou) . Afterwards, we all used to go around saying “it’s cowly owl” and laughing uproariously. We were very young and silly in those days …

Chouette (no pointed tufts)
Hibou (with pointed tufts)

I checked the origin of chouette but nobody knows why it started to be used in the early 1800s to mean something pleasant. Rabelais used it to describe a loose woman. A connection maybe?

Chouette - without pointed tufts
Chouette – without pointed tufts

Incidentally, vachement fleurs doesn’t appear to have any particular significance. I don’t know whether it’s connected to Vachement Fleur, a chain of florists in Belgium, but they don’t have an “s” on “fleur”.

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