It’s a Sunday afternoon in Paris. Your brain is still fried from last night’s party, and you’re having some trouble activating your memory precisely when you need it: you’re on the top of a ladder, trying to fix the lamp, but you can’t remember where you left the lightbulb. Worse still, when you try to explain your predicament to your girlfriend you can’t even remember the word for lightbulb!
- Where’s the truc (“thing”)?
- What truc?
- You know, the truc to fix the machin (“thing”)!
Believe it or not, this is actually a pretty typical French dialogue. The poet and critic Boileau may have claimed that, “what is well conceived is clearly said,” but he was a bit of a purist concerning the French language. For the rest of us, filler words like truc and machin can mean nothing and everything at the same time — and they pop up in French conversations all the time. So they are simply unavoidable if you want to gain some fluency in the language of Molière. Here are some guidelines to get you using them right away.
Truc is absolutely essential. It can mean “lightbulb,” but also the TV show you watched last night, next Saturday’s party, or that specialized piece of kitchen gadgetry that nobody knows the name of. Since the word itself doesn’t mean anything in particular, it’s often accompanied by a hand or head gesture. It’s used pretty informally and reveals a familiarity with idiomatic French, so we’re always impressed when we hear foreigners dropping it into conversation. If you’re struggling to pronounce it correctly, don’t sweat it. Saying truc in a foreign accent is even more charming!
Bidule is less vague than truc. It mostly stands in for objects whose real names nobody really uses because they are so rarely talked about — for example, the socket wrench you need to fix your bike. Bidule can also be the name of a pet, if you aren’t feeling particularly creative. You can even conjugate it: Je bidule, tu bidules, il bidule… (I bidule, you bidule, he bidules…). Use with moderation, or you risk saying something ridiculous like, “You’re looking for the bidule? I biduled it for the next bidule.”
Machin is used more frequently than bidule but less than truc. It’s mostly used to replace someone’s name which is especially practical for those friends of friends whose actual names just won’t stick in your memory. For example, “I saw Anna with machin in the subway last week.”
Chose wouldn’t mean anything by itself, but in combination with the right words it can mean just about anything. Not sure how to use it? Just remember that chose is also the French name for “Thing” in the Addams Family, and, like Thing, chose should really be attached to a body (in this case, other words), rather than running around on its own, freaking everyone out and prompting a reaction like, “Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette chose ?” (What the hell is that?!)
The height of accurate inaccuracy resides in knowing how to combine all of these filler words: the “truc-bidule,” the “machin-chose,” the “truc-bidule-machin-chouette.” If you get to this point, consider yourself a master of French chit-chat.