When learning a foreign language, new words stick with you for different reasons. Some words express a cultural concept, an idea intrinsically bound with the language and culture that you are learning. Other words express a concept or idea that is familiar, but for which there is no equivalent word or expression in your own language. These are the “of course!” words, the “why don’t we have a word for that?” words. Then there are words that are just plain beautiful. Like music or poetry, these words just speak to you, resonate with your core. Drawing from all of these categories, here is a short list of some of my favorite French words.
verb: to leave your comfort zone
This seems like an appropriate place to begin because this word describes something that is fundamental to learning any foreign language: exiting your zone of comfort. The verb dépayser contains the word pays, which means “country”, and the prefix de-, which, like in English, can suggest removal or negation. So a literal one-word translation might be something like “decountrify.” To be dépaysé (adj) – “decountrified” – is to be out of your element, to break or change your habits, to be disoriented. The noun dépaysement – “decountrification” – can be translated as “culture shock” or “disorientation” or “change of scene.” Dépayser can also be used reflexively – se dépayser – so you can even “decountrify” yourself or break your habits. So, while you don’t literally have to leave your country to leave your comfort zone, this word suggests a fundamental relationship between your habits and your culture. It may be the very antidote to this next word…
noun: self-centeredness, egoism, self-absorption
Nombril is navel or belly button, so this word is literally “bellybuttonism” and roughly translates as self-centeredness, egoism, self-absorption, etc. It is petty and detail-oriented, concentrating on a single issue to the exclusion of all else, a certain kind of childishness. English also has “navel-gazing” by the way, but nombrilisme seems to capture so much more by elevating it to the status of a doctrine – its an -ism after all! And it doesn’t stop at the individual bellybutton; it can refer to a collective, national navel-gazing, a tendency to relate everything back to one’s own country, e.g. nombrilisme américain, nombrilisme français, etc. If you want to learn a foreign language you’re going to have to stop gazing at your navel – get out there and decountrify yourself!
adverb: very, truly
When we examine those symbols that lie at the very heart of French culture and identity, there is one that we cannot ignore: the cow – la vache – an animal so important to this country of cheese and cream that it has transcended description and association to become an adverb, which can be applied to just about any verb or adjective for emphasis. The word is vachement, which literally translates to “cowly” and just means very, extremely, truly – a more colorful and emphatic très. Listen for it and you will hear it constantly – but no one seems to realize they are saying “cowly”! Vachement is part of the fabric of everyday expression, its connection to la vache seemingly obscured, a testament to the supreme ubiquity achieved by the cow in France. It is all things and no things.
Chauve means bald and souris means mouse, so a chauve-souris – a bat – is literally a “bald mouse.” And while I can somewhat understand the association, it seems like its lack of hair is one of the more mundane traits that distinguish the bat from the mouse. What about FLIGHT, for example?! Shouldn’t it be a souris volante (“flying mouse”)? Maybe the person who gave the bat its French name encountered it for the first time while it was sleeping. But even then, you’d think “upside-down mouse” would come to mind before “bald mouse.” This is, at any rate, a very strange mouse – vachement bizarre.
5. Avoir le cafard
idiom: to be depressed
Are you feeling blue? Down in the dumps? Well my friend, it sounds like you’ve got the cockroach. Avoir le cafard literally means “to have the cockroach.” And really, who wouldn’t be feeling a little down if they were stuck with one of those things.
noun: cabbage; adj: cute
The noun chou means cabbage, as well as a host of other vegetables when combined with certain other words: chou de Bruxelles is Brussels sprout, chou chinois is bok choy, chou-fleur is cauliflower, chou-rave is kohlrabi and the list goes on. But cabbage in the French language transcends the mere culinary: it can be a term of endearment for a child (mon petit chou = “my little cabbage”), a baby (bout de chou = “piece of cabbage”) or for a significant other (je t’aime, mon chou ! = “I love you, my cabbage!”); as an adjective it can mean adorable, lovely, cute sweet etc. Tu m’as apporté des fleurs ?! Comme tu es chou ! – “You brought me flowers?! How cabbage of you!” Regarde ce bébé-là, comme il est (vachement) chou – “look at that baby, isn’t he just (cowly) cabbage!”
verb: to purr
The verb ronronner is not only excellent practice for your French r-gargling, but by pronouncing it correctly you will already be doing the thing it describes: purring (like a cat) or humming (like an engine).
This word is just plain fun to say. It springs forth from the soft palate and bounces back before slithering out through the teeth, only to liquefy back across the entire palate. It takes your mouth on a one-word journey across five consonants and three vowels that are alternatingly sharp, bright, bouncy, and fluid. And to what creature is bestowed the honor of this ecstatic word? Why it’s none other than the humble ladybug to the Americans, ladybird to the British. And whether you know it as ladybug or ladybird, I think we can all agree that this is a pretty unimaginative way to refer to a polka-dotted flying thing. Francophones: 1, Anglophones: 0
noun: repair person (European French); corner store (Québécois French)
And finally, a shoutout to my friends in Québec – I haven’t forgotten you! A list of all the amazing words and expressions to be found in Québécois French will have to wait for the next article. In the meantime, I leave you with dépanneur, by far not the most interesting or entertaining French-Canadian word, but a favorite for personal reasons. In standard French, a panne is a breakdown or failure of a machine. The verb dépanner means to fix, repair, mend, but takes on the broader meaning of to help out or to come to the rescue. A dépanneur (in standard French) is by extension a repair person or a mechanic. The Québécois take this idea to its logical conclusion: a dépanneur is the corner store where you buy your booze and chips. A frequent panne that I encounter is lack of beer and chips. In Montréal, the dépanneur was always there to help.
Many thanks to Julie P., Patrick R. and Agathe C.