7 Weird Things French Say

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“Huh… I don’t think I’ll try your soup.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Feng points to the name of the brand printed in white inside a red heart.

“Yeah, and?”

“Read it in English.”

“But—… OH!”

In French, “Liebig” is a brand of soup, like Knorr and many others.

But in English, “lie big” doesn’t inspire trust and confidence.

It’s funny how exotic French can sound when you’re no longer immersed in the culture. Here are a few expressions and words I rediscover when I go to France.

Arabic expressions (often from Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco)

Kif kif” (“same” or “alike”), “chouïa” (“a little bit”), “bled” (“village” or “hometown”), “cleb” (“dog”) or “razzia” (“raid”) are words borrowed from Arabic that everyone uses in France. I’m not sure they would be understood in other French-speaking countries, though.

Nanani, nanana”

Instead of saying “etc.,” you’ll hear French using “nanani, nanana.” These two funny words don’t mean anything, it’s just a standard filler expression for “I’ll spare you the details.” Alternatively, you could say, “et patati et patata.”

Machin” (or “machine”)

A “machin” (feminine, “machine”) is a thing you can’t find the proper name for. By extension, it’s also what’s-his-name (or what’s-her-name), as in “I saw machin today, still asking me for the report, nanani, nanana.”

“Si”

If you want to contradict someone in French you need to master this two-letter word—“si”. Si means “yes” in response to a negative question or statement. For instance: “So you’re not coming tomorrow, are you?” “Si” (as in “yes, I am coming”). You’ll often hear French people shouting “mais si!” during political arguments.

Terrible

Terrible” can mean both “awful” and “awesome”—context and tone of voice will give you a clue. Once, in Thailand, Feng and I were considering trying a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that supposedly made the best pad thai ever. There were hundreds of backpacker testimonies handwritten on the walls, and one of them read “carrément terrible!.” “Probably not worth it,” Feng assessed. “Are you serious?” I replied. “The person who wrote this loved the food!” Then I had to spend ten minutes explaining why in this context, “terrible” meant “totally awesome.” (The noodles were actually pretty good, by the way.)

Oh, la vache!”

If you hear this, don’t turn around to look for a cow—the person you’re talking to is just expressing surprise or commiserating with you. For instance: “Oh, la vache! Il est cher, ce café !” (“Holy cow, this cup of coffee is expensive!”).

Putain!”

This lovely all-purpose word is actually a derogatory term for a hooker, but it’s used as “damn,” “fuck,” “holy shit,” “fucking hell,” etc. Tonight, right after putting shampoo on my hair, I realize there was no hot water left. “OH NON, PUTAIN!” I shouted. Mark asked us what it meant—we sent him to bed instead of teaching him a new French word.

Any funny expression in French or in your language of choice you could teach me?

Meanwhile, here are a few graffiti collected around Nantes!

“Democracy dead end”, Trentemoult

“Watch out, I’m taking my bike out”, Trentemoult, Nantes

Under the bridge Square Vertais, Nantes

Under the bridge Square Vertais, Nantes

“I can make a caricature of whoever I want”, Pont de la Tortière, Nantes

“All cops are bastard”, Along the Erdre, Nantes

Rue du Calvaire, Nantes

Rue Jean de la Fontaine, Nantes

Rue Jean de la Fontaine, Nantes

Cours des 50 otages, Nantes

Rue Racine, Nantes

Boulevard Gaston Doumergue, Nantes

Boulevard Gaston Doumergue, Nantes

Boulevard Gaston Doumergue, Nantes

Boulevard Gaston Doumergue, Nantes

Boulevard Gaston Doumergue, Nantes

Along the Erdre, Nantes

Rue Léon Blum, Nantes

Rue Saint-Léonard, Nantes

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

10 Comments

  1. Martin Penwald on

    Mince, j’aurais pas su pour cleb. J’utilise plutôt clébard, d’ailleurs. Il y a « flouze » aussi qui vient du nord de l’Afrique.

  2. I’m more of a patati patata kind of person. And I’m the french cliché because I say “Oulah” a lot too (lately I’ve been clumsy and “Oulah” as been my most used word). My dad still say “guitoune” and “nouba”! You also got toubib or souk!

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