Tag Archives: Friday’s French

Friday’s French – courant, current, actuel, actual

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These are more of those look-alike words that the French call faux-amis.

Ce type de papier peint était très courant au 18ème siècle en France – This type of wallpaper was very common in France in the 18th century

We’ll start with courant which has a few different meanings. We’re only going to look at adjectives here.

Les dépenses courantes d’une maison, for example, are ordinary or everyday expenses. Un mot courant is a standard or ordinary word.

Une pratique courante is standard practice and un travail courant is routine work.

Le recours aux intermittents est une pratique courante des chaînes de télévision – Employing contract workers is standard practice in television.

It can also mean common – Ce genre d’incident est très courant ici : This kind of incident is very common here or This kind of thing is a common occurrence here.

Its English look-alike, “current”, has a different meaning.

Le cours actuel du dollar est plus élevé qu’au mois de mai : The current exchange rate of the dollar is higher than it was in May.

Currents events are évènements actuels or, more commonly, l’actualité which is invariable except when used to mean the news on TV or radio which are called les actualités. Je l’ai entendu aux actualités ce soir : I heard it on the news tonight. Les dix sujets d’actualité les plus recherchés sur Yahoo! en 2016, en France, sont le Bréxit, les attentats, les Panama Papers et le crash d’Egyptair : Yahoo!’s top ten searches and news stories in 2016 in France were Brexit, the terrorist attacks, the Panama Papers and the Egyptair plane crash.

The current month is le mois en cours while her current boyfriend is son petit ami du moment. I always think the expression petit ami or petite amie is very amusing. Translated literally, its gives “her little friend” which we would only use in English to describe a child. Copain or copine can also be used to mean boyfriend or girlfriend unless of the same sex in which case it means buddy. If a boy says C’est nouvelle copine, it means he has a new girlfriend. If he says J’ai un nouveau copain, it means he has a new buddy. However if he says, speaking about a particular girl, C’est une copine, c’est tout, then it means she’s just a buddy. Sort of confusing, I know, but it’s all about context.

Another meaning of the English word current revolves around the idea of being widely accepted or used. This can be translated in various ways in French, depending on the circumstances, and can include courant. Otherwise, commun or en cours. A current account is a compte courant, that is, an ordinary account.

There is a current idea that up to 30% of the warming last century was due to solar effects – Selon une idée courante, jusqu’à 30% du réchauffement planétaire le siècle dernier est dû aux effets solaires.

To go back to actuel, it also means at the present time, which gives expressions such as à l’heure actuelle (at present, at the moment), à l’époque actuelle (nowadays, in this day and age), le monde actuel (the world today, the present-day world) and even l’actuel Premier minister (the current Prime Minister).

So if actuel more or less corresponds to current or present, what does actual correspond to?  It’s most common meaning is real, that is, which something that exists, or is happening at the present time.

There is no actual contract : il n’y a pas vraiment de contrat.

An actual fact is un fait réel, actual size is grandeur nature (as in real life) or taille réelle (a specific measurement).

There is another slightly different meaning: the actual film doesn’t start until 8.55 – le film ne commence qu’à 20 h 55. This is the actual house (as opposed to the barn and garage): Voici la maison elle-même or if it’s something that has been mentioned previously, Voici la maison en question.

In actual fact corresponds more or less to en fait, which is not the same as in fact. You can tell me why after studying the following sentences.

In actual fact, I don’t like strawberries, but I eat them to be polite. En fait, je n’aime pas les fraises mais je les mange pour être polie.

He’s annoying, in fact, he’s very annoying indeed. Il est embêtant, il est même très embêtant.

Friday’s French – Minute papillon

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As we were driving through Paris recently in the rain, we saw a café called “Minute Papillon” which made me wonder about the origin of the expression which is roughly equivalent to our English saying “Hold your horses!”.


Some sources suggest it is simply a metaphor about butterflies which flit from flower to flower, which would also explain the verb papillonner which means to chop and change or flit from one thing to another.

Other sources also believe the expression came into use in the early 20th century but with a much more amusing origin. At the time, there was a café in Paris that was very popular with journalists. There was a waiter called Papillon who used to answer “Minute, j’arrive” when too many people were calling on his services at the same time.

So when customers wanted to tell him he could take his time, they would say, “Minute Papillon!” It seems the journalists spread the story.

Minute papillon has a second meaning which is an extension of the first i.e. I don’t agree, meaning that the other person has to stop talking so that they can place their argument.

Papillon by itself has several interesting meanings. It can apply to someone who is fickle. It also means a sticker and, by extension, a parking ticket on the windscreen (although I have never seen them in the form of a sticker).

Papillon is also used to designate a butterfly nut and butterfly stroke in swimming.

A noeud papillon is our bow tie. I much prefer the French expression.

However, you can’t have papillons in your tummy when you’re nervous the way you do in English. You have “le trac” instead.

And, by the way, there is no separate word for moth in French – it’s a papillon de nuit!

Do you have any other expression that revolve around butterflies and papillons?


Friday’s French – Important, importance, substantial, substantiel

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Unlike English, important in French can indicate quantity where in English, it only means “of great import or significance”.

e.g. Il y avait un nombre important de demandes : there were a large number of applications.

Il y a un nombre important d'églises en France
Il y a un nombre important d’églises en France – There are a large number of churches in France

In English, we have to choose among a whole range of words such as large, considerable, substantial, big and extensive!

You sometimes see substantiel in French but it is often a loan translation or calque. Substantiel is used more restrictively in French.

Nourriture substantielle = nourishing food

Exposé très substantiel = An essay with a lot of substance

Only in sentences such as il a obtenu des advantages substantiels = he obtained a substantial number of advantages  is it used in the typical English meaning of the word.

My Chambers dictionary gives SIXTEEN different meanings for substantial :

  1. Of or having substance
  2. Being a substance
  3. Essential
  4. Actually existing
  5. Real
  6. Corporeal, material
  7. Solid
  8. Stable
  9. Solidly based
  10. Durable
  11. Enduring
  12. Firm, stout, strong
  13. Considerable in amount
  14. Bulk
  15. Well-to-do, wealth, influential
  16. Of firm, solid or sound value.

WOW! What a useful word. Unfortunately it doesn’t give examples but I’ll try and find some. You can see that the solution in French is different every time.

He sustained a substantial loss = Il a subi une perte considérable.

My father was a very substantial man in his heyday = Mon père était un homme imposant dans la force de l’âge.

That is a very substantial argument = C’est un argument de poids.

The house has a substantial structure = La maison a une structure solide.

He offered substantial proof of his innocence = Il avait des preuves convaincantes de son innocence.

They run a substantial business = Ils ont une grosse affaire.

They are in substantial agreement = Ils sont d’accord sur l’essentiel.

His objections were substantial = Ses objections étaient bien fondées.

She comes from a substantial Scottish family = Elle vient d’une famille prospère écossaise

Une modification substantielle d’un contrat  concerns the substance of an agreement i.e. an essential component such as remuneration or qualification. This is called a substantial amendment in English but un élément substantiel d’un contrat is an essential part of a contract and not a substantial part.

Substantial completion is a term widely used  in construction and applies when the contractor has substantially but not completely performed the contract requirements. In French this is known simply as achèvement but we’re getting into legal subtleties here!

Do you know any other examples in which important/important and substantial/substantiel have different meanings in English and French?

Friday’s French – poil, cheveux, hair, fur

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You may remember a discussion about poêle a couple of weeks ago. Now there is another word that is pronounced exactly the same way (unless you come from the south of France and pronounce the “e” at the end of poêle) and seems to have resulted in a few embarrassing situations for some of our readers!

Poil, from the Latin pilus, means body hair and applies to both animals and humans. In the case of animals, of course, it’s what we call fur. Un chien à poil ras = A dog with short fur. It is also used for a man’s beard, what we sometimes refer to as bristles in English.

It is NOT used for the hair on your head which is cheveu in the singular and cheveux in the plural. J’ai trouvé un cheveu gris sur ma tête – I found a grey hair on my head ; il a des cheveux bouclés = he has curly hair.

But back to poil which is far more interesting because of all the many expressions that exist.

Etre à poil means to be stark naked, as in, you can see all the person’s hair.

Avoir un poil dans la main (literally, to have a hair in one’s hand) = to be lazy. Now why is a complete mystery.

Reprendre du poil de la bête = to pick up again, to regain strength. For example,  j’ai eu la grippe pendant une semaine, mais j’ai repris du poil de la bête : I was down with the flu for a week, but now I’m on top of things again.

The expression literally means to take fur from an animal because people believed that the fur of an animal that had just bitten you could be used to heal the wound. It seems there is an English expression “the hair of the dog” that means an alcholic beverage consumed to cure a hangover, but I have personally never heard of it !

Another expression is s’il avait un poil de bon sens :  if he had an ounce of good sense.

C’est pile poil ce que je voulais:  it’s exactly what I wanted. This comes from tomber pile (au) poil from the expression pile ou face which means heads or tails (or more exactly tails or heads) and au poil which means exactly, that is, to within a hair’s breadth.

Do you know any other expressions with poil?

Friday’s French – poêle, poeliste, fumiste, fumisterie

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I would just like to point out straight away that poeliste is not a real word but it amused my Solognot neighbour Alain no end. We are thinking of putting a wood-burning stove in our downstairs living room (as I mentioned earlier this week) and the stove installer recommended by Alain came round to give us a quote.

One of several porcelain stoves in Meissen in Germany - un poêle.
One of several porcelain stoves in Meissen in Germany – un poêle.

The French for wood-burning stove is poêle from the Latin pensilis, meaning suspended, from the verb pendere, to be suspended, which gave pendent and pendulous in English. Pensilis may seem far removed from poêle, but remember that an ê in French often indicates that an “s” dropped out. In this case, the “n” got lost as well.

Initially it designated baths suspended from vaults and heated underneath in all those rich Roman villas. After that it meant a heated chamber and eventually the cast iron or earthenware stove we know today.

When poêle means a stove, it’s masculine. But listen to this. When it means a frying pan, it’s feminine. Same spelling, same pronunciation and everything. But it doesn’t come from pensilis. It comes from patella meaning a small dish. Patella first became paielle then paele and maybe poesle (1579) which would explain today’s poêle. A small frying pan is a poêlon, which of course is masculine. How we’re supposed to remember that I don’t know.

Une poêle à crèpes
Une poêle à crèpes

I based my use of poêliste on fumiste (from fumée, smoke) which means heating mechanic and also chimney sweep, although the more usual word is ramoneur.

But fumiste has another meaning – a shirker. I asked Alain why but he didn’t know. Good old Wikipedia came to the rescue. Apparently it comes from a vaudeville show called La Famille du fumiste about a heating mechanic who wasn’t the sort of person you could really count on!

The noun fumisterie whose real meaning is a heating mechanic’s workshop now has the same derogatory meaning as fumiste. C’est de la fumisterie means it’s a fraud. So I’m hoping our poêliste is not a fumiste or I am going to be cold all winter …


Friday’s French – marmelade, confiture & jam

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I was recently told a very plausible and fascinating story about the origin of the word marmelade.

France's most popular jams: abricots et fraises
France’s most popular jams: abricots et fraises

The future Mary Queen of Scots was brought up in France, mostly in the Castle of Amboise just down the road from us. She was often sick because she had no appetite until someone finally came up with a special treat – a jelly called marmelade because it was made for Marie Malade (sick Mary).

Sad to say, the story is not true. Marmelada comes from the Portuguese marmelo meaning quince and is a sort of quince paste introduced into England in about 1480, and predates Mary Queen of Scots who was born in 1542. She may well have liked it but is not responsible for the name! Note the different spelling in French and English – the second “a” becomes an “e” in French.

I’m always amazed to hear how such stories can be perpetrated without any foundation other than a fertile imagination. Not that I have anything against fertile imaginations …

You don’t often see marmalade in France so for my Christmas Cake I use confiture d’écorce d’orange (écorce = peel) which seems to work just as well.

For some reason that I have never fathomed, the most popular jams in France are strawberry and apricot, neither of which I like. Even at Angelina’s, they are the only choice available!

The word confiture comes from the verb confire in French and the Latin conficere meaning to completely finish (past participle confectus which you will recognise in confectionery). Confiture, introduced into French in the late 18th century, initially meant fruit cooked in sugar (candied fruit, stewed fruit, etc.) before being limited to jam in the 19th century.

The English jam, on the other hand, derives from the verb “to jam” meaning to crowd, squeeze or block because the jam we eat is the result of a congestion or the resulting stoppage.

You may remember from reading Victorian novels that everyone used to make “preserves”. The French equivalent is conserves. And, just to avoid any future blunders, a préservatif is a French letter or condom as it’s called today. There is a little town in France called Condom, by the way.

I have only been able to find one expression containing the word confiture in French: Donner de la confiture aux cochons whose English equivalent, which I have never heard before (oh where is my general knowledge?) is “Throw pearls before swine” which refers to a quotation from Matthew 7:6 in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” Should we read any significance into the fact that this has been translated as confiture in French? The country of gastronomie?

In English we have traffic jams which are embouteillages in French from bouteille meaning bottle, the equivalent of our bottlenecks.

I’m sure you know lots of other expressions using “jam”. Do you know their equivalents in French as well?

Friday’s French – L’été indien, l’été de la saint martin, l’été de Vireux

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The exceptional warmth in France (and most of the northern hemisphere from what I can gather) this year has everyone talking – incorrectly as usual – about the été indien which is a literal translation of Indian summer.

A typical day in autumn this year, though technically not an Indian summer because we haven't had any frost yet and it's not November 8 yet!
A typical day in autumn this year, though technically not an Indian summer because we haven’t had any frost yet and it’s not November 8 yet!

The real meaning of l’été indien is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather after the first frosts in autumn and just before winter. It occurs either in October or the beginning of November and can last from a few days to more than a week or not happen at all.

Most French people use été indien to mean the warm sunny days that we often get in September and then use été de la Saint-Martin or été de Vireux for what is known as an Indian summer, defined by the US National Weather Service as conditions that  are sunny and clear with above normal temperatures, occurring late-September to mid-November. It is usually described as occurring after a killing frost.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has additional criteria:

“As well as being warm, the atmosphere during Indian summer is hazy or smoky, there is no wind, the barometer is standing high, and the nights are clear and chilly. A moving, cool, shallow polar air mass is converting into a deep, warm, stagnant anticyclone (high pressure) system, which has the effect of causing the haze and large swing in temperature between day and night. The time of occurrence is important: The warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost. The conditions described above must occur between St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and November 20. For over 200 years, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has adhered to the saying, ‘If All Saints’ (November 1) brings out winter, St. Martin’s brings out Indian summer.’ ” Much more strict than our current use.

Saint Martin actually died in Candes on November 8 but the fête de l’été de la Saint-Martin is celebrated on November 11 – don’t ask me why.

Vireux is more problematic. My Robert Etymological Dictionary is still in a carton somewhere (and I can’t find the notebook linking up the carton numbers with their contents …). Vireux normally means noxious but it also comes from virer meaning change, seen in expressions such as virer de tout vent – to be as changeable as a weathercock.

It sound like a plausible explanation, doesn’t it? The idea of changing over to winter.

What do you call an Indian summer in your country?

Friday’s French – déménager, déménagement, ménager

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Nos cartons de déménagement
Nos cartons de déménagement

Lundi on déménage ! For some reason, it sounds more specific in French than the English “We’re moving on Monday !” I guess it’s because “move” can be used to mean so many different things but déménager always means moving house (or office or whatever).

A ménage, which comes old French mesnage, a derivative of the Latin mansio (house), is a married couple or a household, so déménager literally means “breaking up the household”. And that is exactly what is happening at the moment as I sort out and pack up our goods and chattels accumulated over the last 9 years (and more).

We’re having déménageurs do the actual moving with a camion de déménagement. Déménageur refers to both the removalist company and the individual person doing the moving. I had 5 devis (quotes) done. The estimated volume ranged from 52 cubic meters to 67 cubic meters, which is astonishing. And the prices ranged from 2,500 euro to 4,700 euro to move our belongings to Blois, 200 kilometers away.

I was so suspicious of the lowest quote that I rang them to find out why. They had made a mistake and quoted for Paris! They increased the quote to 3,000 euro which was still belong the next price of 3,600 euro so we chose Ultimate Déménagement. We’ll see how competent they are!

Taking the piano down 4 flights of stairs
Les déménageurs descendent le piano quatre étages

Déménageur has given the expression il a une carrure de déménageur – he’s built like a tank. But the champion of all was the single porteur who originally carried our piano up four flights of stairs on his back. It took two déménageurs to take it down again. They had heard of a porteur but never seen one in action.


Another expression that I like is déménager à la cloche de bois: to sneak off in the middle of the night. Though why there is a wooden bell involved, I don’t know!

Also, ça déménage is slang for “it’s brill/awesome”.

The verb ménager, however, means something totally different. The idea is to make sure a person is not offended.

Il faut vraiment la ménager, elle est très sensible – You have to treat her gently – she’s very sensitive.

Il faut qu’on ménage les deux parties – We have to keep both parties happy.

Si vous ne la ménagez pas, elle va beaucoup souffrir – If you don’t treat her tactfully, she will be very hurt.

Another great expression is ménager la chèvre et le chou (the goat and the cabbage) = to sit on the fence.

When applied to an object, ménager means to treat something with care or sparingly. The most widespread use is ménager ses forces or efforts = to save or conserve one’s strength.

So we can put déménager, déménagement and ménager together in the same sentence:

Un bon déménageur sait ménager ses forces pour mener à bien le déménagement. = A good mover knows how to save his strength so the move will go well.

Now I have to get back to my cartons de déménagement

Friday’s French in Portugal

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fire_signMy first contact with Portuguese was during my honours year of university in Australia when I studied and fell in love with Romance Linguistics, which is the story of how Latin turned into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. It was like a jigsaw puzzle – and I had always liked jigsaws.

I found it absolutely fascinating to learn that flos, the word for flower in Latin should have become fleur in French, fiore in Italian, flor in Spanish and Portuguese and floare in Romania. Castellum turned into château, castello, castillo, castelo and castel. Not only that, but the changes are systematic: fl in Latin nearly always gives fl in French, fi in Italian, fl in Spanish and Portuguese. And ditto for ca which remains the same in all the languages except French where it becomes ch.

I have since studied French, Italian and Spanish in greater detail and still get a kick out of the systematic changes you can see: blanc, bianco, blanco for white ; pluie, pioggia, lluvia for rain, and so on. But this is my first real contact with Portuguese.

The first thing I noticed is that the “l” has disappeared from definite articles : o, a, os, as and not il, la et les.

N often becomes m : jardim, im, bem (bien), bom.

Otherwise it often seems a mixture of Spanish and Italian when it’s written – but not when it’s spoken.

I’m kicking myself for not having at least learnt some basics with the help of my Portugueuse cleaner before I left!

I’ve now mastered obrigada (thank you) which is like saying (I’m) obliged. As a result, Jean Michel has to say obrigado.

I downloaded an app on my iPhone (not lost or stolen yet) to help with pronunciation. We weren’t sure how to say azulejos (those beautiful ceramic tiles they have everywhere). It sounds like a-zu-lie-si (with s being pronunced like the s in Asia). I can tell you, it’s going to take me a lot longer than a week to master that one!

I also learnt something very interesting about the days of the week. Unlike the other Romance languages, Portugueuse has a totally different system. Sabado (Saturday) and domingo (Sunday) correspond to most of the others but Monday to Friday are a different kettle of fish: segunda-feira, terça-feira, quarta-feira, quinta-feira and sexta-feira meaning second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth feast day.

There are a couple of explanations, one being that they were called according to the fair (feira) that used to take place on that day many moons ago. A feira is a set of tents pitched in the street where you can buy vegetables, fruits, and other foods.

Another explanation is that, because of the pagan origin of the original names of the days of the week, Martinho de Dume, a sixth-century bishop of Braga, in what is Portugal today, changed them to correspond to the full observance of an Easter week.

Domingo (Sunday) has its origin in the Latin expression for the Day of the Lord, sabado was named for the Hebrew word Shabbat while the other days come from the Latin terms for “second/third/fourth/fifth/sixth day on which one shouldn’t work” (in observance of Easter week).

Whatever the explanation it’s a bit confusing when reading a bus timetable!

Friday’s French – littoral, cotière & rivage

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In last week’s Friday’s French, I talked about côte meaning coast (among other things). A reader said he thought that littoral meant coast so I thought I should do a second post!

Le littoral espagnol sur la Côte basque
Le littoral espagnol sur la Côte basque

I checked out my trusty Larousse which tells me that le littoral is a sinuous area where the sea or a lake comes into contact with land. Then it goes on to say that it has a wider meaning than either rivage or côte which concern the area directly or indirectly affected by the action of the sea.

It also gives a second meaning i.e. littoral is used when speaking of all the côtes of a country, region, ocean or sea.

OK, so, in practical terms, what exactly does that mean? Examples of use are probably the best indication.

The first that comes to mind is conservation du littoral which means coastal conservation.

Here are some other examples:

Sur le littoral, une maison sur deux est une résidence secondaire. – One house out of two along the coast is a second home.

Avec ses milliers de kilomètres de littoral, la France offre une extraordinaire diversité. – With its thousands of kilometers of coastline, France offers extraordinary diversity.

Les Sauveteurs en Mer contribuent à diminuer le nombre des accidents sur le littoral français. – Lifesavers help to reduce the number of accidents along the coast of France.

Côte, often in the plural, could also be used in all these examples:

Une maison sur deux sur la côte est une résidence secondaire.

Avec ses milliers de kilomètres de côtes, la France offre une extraordinaire diversité.

Les Sauveteurs de Mer contribuent à diminuer le nombre des accidents sur les côtes françaises.

But the register is different. Littoral is more appropriate in a written context.

So when wouldn’t you use littoral? You wouldn’t say Je vais passer mes vacances sur le littoral or Il faut beau sur le littoral or J’adore le littoral. You would need to use côte in all these examples.

Côtier, the adjective from côte, is used in contexts such as bâteau côtier (coaster), région côtière (coastal region), ville côtière (coastal town) and pêche cotière (inshore fishing).

And what about rivage, which I mentioned earlier?

This is closer to our word “shore”, namely, that part of the land subjected to the action of waves and tides. It can be used for both the sea and lakes. Apart from names of camping grounds, restaurants and hotels (Beau Rivage), it’s practically never used. An example would be la baleine a échoué sur le rivage – the whale was beached on the shore.

So, in general, you can just use côte and côtière unless your context is specific.

And while I’m on the subject, when the French are talking about the Atlantic Ocean, they use the word “océan” and if they are talking about the Mediterranean, they use “mer”. whereas in Australia, we tend to use “sea” all the time. Tous les matins je cours ou je joue au tennis et après je me baigne dans l’océan – Every morning I go for a run or play tennis and afterwards, I swim in the sea. We would NOT say “I swim in the ocean” now, would we?

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