Throughout my time in Paris I’ve come across many an untranslatable word in the French language. I’ve talked about these before, even discussed them in my 2020 memoir Paris On Air, but here are my ten favourites.
Brace yourselves: These are the ten best French words that you won’t find in English.
The rule to be classed as untranslatable: That it doesn’t exist in a single word in the English word.
I released this list as a podcast if you want pronunciation and more info on how to use them. Scroll down for the full list.
1. Rebonjour: Literally: Re-hello. Or “Hello again”. But it’s a lot more nuanced, charming, and polite than just hello again. And as I explained in the episode, a rebonjour will be answered with a grin eight out of nine times, which is a much better score than a humble “hello again”.
2. Flaneur: Here’s the classic one, so let’s get it out the way. This is someone who enjoys an aimless wander, particularly in a city like Paris.
3. Si: I love this word. It just means “Yes”, but you can only use it to respond to a negative question. Kinda like: You’ve not subscribed to the Earful Tower podcast, have you? Si! (Yes, I have actually).
4. Juilletiste: All of France is divided into two camps: Those who go on summer holiday in July – and those who go in August. So, a juilletiste is “Someone who chooses July for their summer holiday”. Or, a “Julyer”.
5. Aoûtien: You guessed it – these are people who prefer to holiday in August (Août is French for August). The great thing about these past two words is that they are actually very regularly used in France. Newspapers write about the Juilletistes and the Aoûtiens every summer.
Note: For the next two words, 6. Tutoyer and 7. Vouvoyer, I’ve just pinched an excerpt from my own book, in a section I devoted to my fascination with the French language.
Another favourite I have, which is pretty difficult to explain if you don’t know French, is the verb tutoyer, which more or less means “to be less formal with someone”. To understand this, though, you have to know that in France there are two ways to say “you”. There’s the formal version, vous, that you’d use with older people or strangers. Then there’s the less formal version, tu, which you’d use with friends, children, animals. So the verb tutoyer more specifically means “to use the tu form”.
I love this word, tutoyer: it’s absolutely untranslatable; it says a lot about French culture; and it makes no sense at all to English speakers. And the word vouvoyer, which means “to use the vous form”, is an equally great and untranslatable word.”
Listen to the podcast episode and I read a whole lot more from that chapter. Now, on with the list.
8. Chez: You’ve surely heard of restaurants like Chez Michel and so on… well, chez really means “at the place of” or “at the home of”. So for example, if you say Chez Oliver then you mean “At Oliver’s place”.
9. Châtelaine: This is one of my favourite types of untranslatable words, because it tells a little something about France too. The word means, specifically, a woman who owns (or runs) a castle. We don’t have a need for such a word in Australia, for example, because no one really owns a chateau!
10. Vachement: This one isn’t strictly untranslatable, but it’s a fun French word to end the list. It just mean “extremely” or “totally” etc. But literally, it means “cowly”. As in, that dinner was cowly delicious. You hear it quite a lot in spoken French and it makes you wonder what a cow did to deserve this delightful adverb.
That’s it! If want more about French words and France and Paris, grab a copy of my book here or just click on one of the icons below.
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7 thoughts on “The ten best untranslatable French words”
Bonjour Oliver. Informative podcast. It causes one to reréfléchir on similar words. Any way thank you for doing the zoom meeting. Josef in Cape May.
Love your podcast Oliver. And maybe I am the only one who enjoyed your mention of Hibbing Minnesota!
I’m flattered you would think I’m fluent because I say ‘si’ and ‘vachement’ (I’m not at all). I guess the translation of ‘flâner’ would be ‘to flan’ or ‘flanning’. Not quite the same ring to it. Thanks for another entertaining, and informative, episode.
In Canada we have a women’s magazine called Chatelaine/Châtelaine (Engish and French version). It was founded in 1928 and is still published today.
Enjoyed your piece on untranslatable French words, but suggest you replace defenestrate because it is both a noun & verb in English, with merde meaning good luck.
‘Vachement’ reminds of ‘holy cow’, which people used to say when I was young, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion.