To be fluent in a language, you’ve got to have the vocabulary, those native words and phrases that you just know when you’ve grown up in a culture. It’s the kind of stuff that’s too recent or colloquial to be printed in your 1987 textbook.
Because we at Frenchly are blessed to be surrounded by French coworkers, we’ve been able to do some eavesdropping on what sort of language the French use that isn’t in your textbook. To aid in the pursuit of fluency, here are 11 words and phrases straight from the mouths of the French. Check out February, March, April, and May’s list for more words, and feel free to comment or ask questions in the comments section below.
1. Quand on parle du loup
“When you talk about the wolf” is the translation of this phrase, but you definitely aren’t talking about a wolf. This is the French equivalent of the English phrase, “speak of the devil” when who you were just talking about appears.
A little filler to indicate you’re actively engaged in the conversation, “j’imagine” translates to “I imagine” but in meaning it’s closer to “I feel you” or “I bet.” When your friend says he’s really disappointed he didn’t get a promotion, respond, “j’imagine.” Alternatively, if you want a conversation to end, say “j’imagine” when it’s your turn to speak, and that’s more like “uh-huh.”
3. Un bout de chou
This noun translates to “a bit of cabbage” but actually means “a baby” or “a toddler.” In the same way you say, “you’re just a peanut!” to a baby, the French would say the baby was “un bout de chou.”
4. Ça fera l’affaire
Classic French skepticism, this phrase means “it gets the job done.” So maybe your car’s radio and AC are broken and the seats shake when you go above 35mph, but ça fera l’affaire. Or, if you have to replace a soccer player on your rec league team with a less good player, you’ll resignedly tell your teammates, “il fera l’affaire.”
A simple verb, “régaler” means to treat or entertain to the best. In the reflexive, “se régaler,” in additional the two meanings of “régaler,” also means to really enjoy (to relish). After you enjoy an incredible, delicious meal? “Je me suis régalé” (I really enjoyed myself). Watch an amazing soccer player in a match? “Il régale” (He’s entertaining). Have a friend that treats everyone to a round of drinks at the bar? “Il nous a régalé” (he treated us all).
An easy adjective, “courant” (or “courante” for feminine things) means something is common.
7. Ça roule? Ça roule.
Another French gem where the question is also the answer. Literally translating to “it rolls,” “ça roule” means two things: “how’s it going?” if you up-talk at the end of the phrase, and “it’s going” when you keep your voice flat. As you’re working on a tough project at work, your coworker might ask “ça roule?” and you’ll respond “ça roule.”
8. Question bâteau
Individually these words mean “question” and “boat,” but together they together mean “stupid question” or “obvious question.” For example, if your friend asks if Christmas is on December 25th every year, you can respond “question bâteau.”
If a French person doesn’t like their meal in America, there’s a high chance “c’est gras,” meaning “it’s fatty.” Donuts? Gras. Pad thai from a food truck? Gras. New York’s pizza? Gras. Where it gets confusing is in reference to weight. “Gras(se)” can also mean fat (like fat all over) or just fat in one part (like a beer belly). (Note: “Gros(se)” can mean big in stature, heavy but muscular (like a linebacker or rugby player), or really fat. “Gros(se)” is fatter than “gras(se).”) In that same vein, “grassouillet(te)” means chubby.
10. Une boîte
“Une boîte” is a box and also a nightclub, a company, or a business. To say you’re going out to a club: “je sors en boîte” (sortir en boîte). As for a company or business, “boîte” used to mean large corporations but it’s become a term for any business or company. It can also refer to the physical space of a company: “je passe à la boîte” (I’m stopping by the office).
11. Faire ton petit malin / jouer au petit malin
In French, the phrase for being a smart aleck is “faire ton/son petit malin” or “jouer au petit malin” (and they’re interchangeable). With “faire,” use “ton petit malin” if you’re talking to someone, and “son petit malin” when talking about someone. Now, to talk about someone being a smart aleck to you, put “avec moi” on the end: “faire ton petit malin avec moi” or “jouer au petit malin avec moi.” And of course, put it in negative to tell someone to cut it out: “fais pas ton petit malin” or “ne joue pas au petit malin avec moi.”