French Words and Expressions I Forgot—No, Really!

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Canadian Mounties, Rideau Hall, October 2012

I used to speak French like a French person. Hardly surprising considering I was born and raised in France—yes, I like to state the obvious (and after all, the University of Ottawa made me take the French as a second language test a couple of years ago!).

But lately, I realized that there were quite a few words or expressions I hadn’t used in ages.

We are an English-speaking household; I don’t speak French on a daily basis. I only do so when I call my parents on Skype or when I meet a French-speaking friend in Ottawa. These days, I mostly read American and Canadian novels in English with the occasional “roman policier” (thriller) in French.

However, as a translator and bilingual copyeditor, I read and write in French on a daily basis. I work for several large local organizations in the private and the public sectors. Most of my clients want to reach a Canadian audience, so I have to keep that fact in mind when I’m translating or editing communication products.

In short, I’m not using my “Parisian” French but a fairly neutral yet grammatically correct and easy to understand flavour of Canadian French. I can’t use too many Quebec expressions because not all French-Canadians are from Quebec, and I certainly wouldn’t use Parisian French because, well, we are not in France.

It’s an interesting balancing act. The French I’m using must be straightforward and to the point and reach as many French-speaking Canadians as possible—newcomers and locals all over the country alike.

As a result, I’m slowly losing my “Parisian” French because I don’t use it.

For instance, I recently realized I hadn’t say “putain” in ages—no big deal I guess, considering it is a swear word after all. “Putain” literally means “prostitute”. In France, this little—slightly offensive—word can mean many things depending on the context, it can even be used as a comma! It is somewhat comparable to “fuck” in English, although I would say it is less offensive than the four-letter word. The use of “putain” in media wouldn’t be censored, for instance.

But I no longer swear in French. If I stub my toe on the table, I’ll rant against the “damn table”, not the “putain de table”. I guess it is a sign of fluency!

Another funny little French word I no longer use is “vachement”, which literally translates as “cowly” but means “really” or “very”. For instance, “(putain)  il fait vachement froid” means “it’s really cold”. Some Quebecers find this word hilarious because… well, it does refer to a cow.

Thanks to Quebec, I also stopped using fake English words, i.e. words that sound English and are used in France but don’t actually mean anything in proper English. For instance “le pressing” (“dry-cleaner” or “nettoyeur” in Quebec French), “les baskets” (“running shoes” or “chaussures de sport” in Quebec French), “le smoking” (“tuxedo” or “costume” in Quebec French). I also adopted the Quebec translation of “weekend” (“fin de semaine”), “email” (“courriel”), “manager” (“gestionnaire”), etc. French do tend to use a lot of Anglicisms and those wouldn’t be acceptable here, especially from a translator!

Finally, because I’ve been away from France for so long, I kind of lost touch with the culture… and trendy new expressions. For instance, when I was in school in the 1980s and 1990s, a type of widely used slang was “verlan”. It consisted of playing around with syllables, kind of along the same lines as pig Latin. The name “verlan” is an example: it is derived from inverting the syllables in “l’envers” (“the inverse”). This slang was a form of expression in French hip-hop but I think it is pretty much gone now and I would probably sound stupid using it.

How about you? Do you keep track of new slang words in your mother tongue? Has the way you express yourself changed?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

23 Comments

  1. Putain is my favorite word. Like Fuck, it can be a noun, an adverb, etc. I love it!
    The verlan is still used, though, so you would still be trendy here!
    As for the english words in the french language, well, I wouldn’t want to go on that slippery slope, especially with québécois… 😀

  2. This is the story of my life. I speak Tagalog as a first language, yet English is in my opinion, more active in my head more often than not these days. I haven’t lived in the Philippines since 2005; I’ll be away from Manila for 8 years now this coming summer. Additionally, given my father’s job as a diplomat, I’ve never really lived continuously inside the Philippines for a long stretch of time. So whenever I head back every now and then, I still understand the language, but there are neologisms here and there that I just don’t get. And whenever I talk to my family, most of the time, I just switch to English as thinking is faster that way anyway.

  3. I won’t begin a topic on how the French language is TOTALLY horrible in here and how the most horrid grammatical errors are accepted in Quebec, even in schools, but I just wanted to say that Quebequers use faaaaaaar more anglicismes than the frenchs. Not the same ones, but overall, more. Really.
    And when I teach, I am corretcin my students al the time. They call me the “ostie d’assistante française”. And proud to be 🙂

  4. I think that Québec the province is very serious about language. Every English word has to have an official French-language equivalent.

    When they talk amongst themselves, however, it’s a whole different story. So many of the verbs they use have clearly been influenced by the English language. Then there is the question of vocabulary – they throw in so many English words when they speak that it often shocks me.

    • Completely agree! There is a huge gap between what organisms like the Office de la langue says and promotes and the way people talk to each other.

  5. I haven’t been here for that long, so I’m still quite à jour wih Spanish. However, since I teach Spanish as a second language, and being my Argentinian accent so bizarre, I need to use a more neutral Spanish wih my students.
    Québécois use many English words, and they have been using them since forever. I invite you all to have a look at a dictionaire de québécois. I highly doubt European French uses more English words than Canadian French.
    I find extremely funny the way people in Quebec refer to their aunts and uncles. They call them matante and mononcle. Even if they are talking about a friend’s aunt or uncle they would say: sa matante/ son mononcle. Maybe it’s just me, but I find his hilarious !
    Have a good weekend !

    • I absolutely love the Argentinian accent and the pronunciation of the “ll”, i.e. “llave”, “llebar”, etc. It was strange at first though! It almost sounded like Portuguese to me 😆

      I didn’t know about the “matante” “mononcle” but I find it hilarious!

      • I just found this old post because I did a search online about matante being used to mean aunt. My sister married into a French-Canadian family living in New England. They use matante to mean aunt and meme to mean grandma. Being that I learned my french in France (Aix-en-Provence) the ma part of the matante drives me nuts! None of them actually speak french (which is fine) but they will introduce someone as “this is my matante”. Basically this is my my aunt. =) Oh well, they are all fine with it.

        • It would drive me crazy too! Never heard anything like that in France (mind you, there are other weird stuff… like the “moi, je” structure).

  6. Zhu…..my Sister-in-law did French as one of her O Levels and wow she speaks like a pro 🙂 She taught my brother ‘where to find the toilet’ in French and it was hilarious listening to my Bother speaks 🙂

    We learnt the basic from a language tape prior to our trip to France in Year 2004 and hey….me gonna pick it up again…that’s the next destination!!!!

  7. Le plus rigolo dans tout ça, c’est que j’été sur place chez un client pour tester un appareil en français:) et à chaque fois que ça foirait je me retrouvais à dire “m***e” à tout bout de champ. Heureusement, mes collègues temporaires n’y comprenaient rien.

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