Even if you’ve never actively learned any French, you probably know a few words here and there. One reason for this is because English and French go way back, and about 30 percent of English words come from French. That means there are a lot of cognates. But also, English speakers just really love to sprinkle in French words and phrases when they speak. There’s even a term for this: Franglais (which can also refer to French speakers who use a lot of English words and phrases). But sometimes these phrases get a little lost in translation, and you might be uttering French phrases that native speakers never use, or that mean different things when French people say them. Before you go to Paris with guns blazing, you might want to check to make sure that your French is really up to par.
Learning about the terms that French speakers never actually say is only useful if you have something to replace it with, though. If you want to get a look at some authentic phrases used by the people who really live in France, you can check out our French No One Teaches You video below. Then, read on to find out about all the French you might accidentally be using wrong.
French Phrases Native Speakers Never Use
comme ci, comme ça
Literal Translation: “like this, like that”
If you learned French in high school or have seen some movies, you may have seen people say comme ci, comme ça like the French equivalent of “so-so.” It’s most often used as a response when someone asks “How are you?”. But if you use this phrase, people will know right away that you’re not an experienced French speaker, because it’s not very common.
If you want a phrase that expresses a similar sentiment, try on fait aller, which literally translates to “we make go.” It basically means “I’m doing OK, though I could be doing better.” So, so-so.
ooh la la
Literal Translation: “ooh la la”
The phrase “ooh la la” is tricky because you can’t just say that French people don’t say it. Because it actually is a common phrase, except it’s written as oh la la. Also, it’s used in entirely different circumstances than the English ooh la la.
In English, a person might say ooh la la in reaction to something a little fancy or a little inappropriate. In French, oh la la is a general exclamation, which is probably most comparable to “oh my god.” It’s very flexible, and someone might say oh la la in response to good news, bad news, a surprising event or really anything else. It’s also not set at two las, and some people might extend it to oh la la la la la la la.
Literal Translation: “double meaning”
In the world of wordplay, not much can beat a perfectly formed double entendre. It’s when a single sentence can be understood in two entirely different ways (and most often, one of the ways is a bit risqué). The French also have this concept, but they refer to it as à double sens.
Saying double entendre will immediately mark you as a non-native French speaker because it’s not grammatically correct. The word entendre is the infinitive verb “to hear,” so this doesn’t work as a French noun phrase.
je ne sais quoi
Literal Translation: “I don’t know what”
At a loss for words? Je ne sais quoi is a great way to express that while also showing off you know a little French. For English speakers, it’s taken on a very idiomatic meaning for something that is beyond a person’s vocabulary. When you like something but can’t express what exactly about it is good? That’s je ne sais quoi, baby.
If you say this in France, however, it won’t sound quite as meaningful. French people do say je ne sais quoi, but it more often literally means “I don’t know what.” French speakers might also use the more idiomatic meaning, but just be warned that throwing around je ne sais quoi a bunch will probably make it sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Literal Translation: “master of”
American restaurants are littered with French terms, because France has long been considered the standard for fine dining in European countries. And yet several of them fall into the category of French phrases native speakers never use. Take, for instance, entrée, which in France refers to the first dish (it literally means “entrance”), but Americans have started using it to refer to the main dish. Similarly, maître d’ is never used in French.
In French, d’ is a shortening of “of,” and calling someone a master of doesn’t make any sense. The actual French term for a head waiter is maître d’hôtel, meaning “master of the establishment.” Also, don’t refer to a waiter as garçon. It means “boy” in French and can come across as very offensive. In general, you might want to brush up on your restaurant terms in French to make sure words mean what you think they do.
pie à la mode
Literal Translation: “fashionable magpie”
This translation is a pit of a cheat, because “pie” doesn’t come from French (though there might be a connection between “pie” and “magpie”). But the focus of this entry is more on the latter half: à la mode. While in English it means “with ice cream on top,” it is used in French to mean “fashionable.” An even more literal translation would be “in the style.”
Je suis fini.
Literal Translation: “I’m done.”
Maybe you’ve heard someone say je suis fini when they’ve finished a painting or polished off a meal. And if you take the literal translation, this seems accurate. But je suis fini has a very different connotation in France: it means you’re dead. If you’re dying, emotionally or physically, then this phrase might be apt to say. But if you just finished your hors d’oeuvres and say je suis fini, someone might think you were poisoned.
Literal Translation: “sacred blue”
There was a time, many years ago, when French people did indeed say sacré bleu ! It was a way of saying sacré Dieu (“sacred God”) without using the French word for “God,” which was considered taboo. As the years have passed, though, this phrase has very much gone out of fashion. And worse, it has become one of those phrases that English speakers use when imitating French people. One reason for this is because it was used by Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Shouting sacré bleu will almost certainly highlight your lack of knowledge about French.
Sacré bleu is one of several exclamatory French phrases that native speakers never use. Zut alors ! will also draw some eyerolls from native speakers, and even mon dieu ! (my god!) is more common in English headlines about France than in the mouths of the actual French. If you want to sound like a native when shouting, you’ll need to look for more authentic curse words.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir ?
Literal Translation: “Would you like to sleep with me tonight?”
As a general rule, do not add non-English phrases to your vocabulary because you heard them in a song. Especially if you’re not 100 percent sure what they mean. This phrase is from Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, and because of that has entered the layperson’s French lexicon. And as you can guess from the translation, it’s a very direct way to ask someone to have sex.
Even if you do know what it means and are attempting to use it correctly, you still should probably abandon the effort. It’s a very formal phrasing of the question, and if you’re still using the second-person vous with someone, that means you probably aren’t at the stage of asking them to bed. If you want to flirt in France, there are better ways to do it.