13 Untranslatable French Words You Should Know

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Have you ever tried to explain a weird concept and wished there was a word in English for it? Well, Merriam-Webster might not be able to help you, but the French have a few words you can borrow.

1. Crapoter

To smoke a cigarette without actually inhaling. Ex: Tu vois le mec qui crapote? Quel escroc.

2. Flâner

A phrase coined by Baudelaire to describe the act of aimlessly wandering with no goal except to people watch and soak in the essence of a city. Someone who participates in flânerie is a flâneur or flâneuse. Ex: Tous les parisiens aiment bien flâner dans la rue.

3. Dépaysé(e)

The feeling of not being in your home country. It’s not quite homesickness, it’s not quite culture shock; it’s a deep and profound sense of being somewhere foreign and strange. Ex: Quand j’ai déménagé en Allemagne, je me suis senti complètement dépaysé.

4. Gueule

A very vulgar/offensive way to basically say “face” or “mouth,” but it has so much more meaning than that. It can be used in any variety of expressions from, “Ta gueule!” (“Shut up”) to “gueule de bois” (“Wooden mouth” or “hangover”), and even “grand guele” (“big mouth” meaning someone who talks a big game). Ex: Je n’aime pas le visage de cette homme. Il a une sale gueule.

5. Chanter en yaourt / yaourter

To fudge your way through song lyrics that you don’t really know. It is particularly used for singing in another language, but could just as well be used for those faking their way through a Beastie Boys song on karaoke night. Ex: Il ne connaît pas du tout les paroles. Il chante en yaourt.

6. La douleur exquise

The “exquisite pain” of unrequited love. Because someone will never be yours, they can never disappoint you, and can remain a perfect idol for you to worship from afar. This is really a literary term, so it’d be pretty dramatic to say aloud. Ex: Paul m’a réjété. Ah, la douleur exquise!

7. Ras-le-bol

To be fed up with something, frustrated, tearing your hair out. Impossible to literally translate, the phrase can be used for anything that fills you with uncontrollable rage or despair. Ex: Mon équipe de football a encore perdu. J’en ai ras le bol!

8. Retrouvailles

The particular sweetness of a reunion long past its due date. It might be finally seeing your long-distance boyfriend after a long absence, or even seeing your dog when coming home from college for the first time. Ex: À la fin de chaque séparation, il y a au moins les retrouvailles.

9. Être à l’Ouest

To be spaced out or daydreaming. Literally translated to, “being in the West,” the phrase might have come from French people dreaming of voyaging across the Atlantic to new lands. Ex: Dès que le temps se réchauffe, tous les élèves sont a l’Ouest.

10. Insortable

How you would describe a person you can’t bring with you to a public function because they embarrassing you. Ex: Marc est un super mec mais parfois il fout la honte en public. Il est insortable.

11. L’appel du vide

The irresistible urge to jump from high places. Literally, “the call of the void,” this expression is so typically French it ought to come with a glass of wine. It comes from a kind of instinct Nietzsche termed “thanatos,” the desire to test the limits of our own mortality. Ex: Au sommet de la Tour Eiffel, j’ai senti l’appel du vide.

12. Savoir-faire

Knowing how to adapt to any situation with grace and ease. This phrase is often used in English because it doesn’t translate as easily as the shortcut definition of “know-how.” Ex: Mon nouveau chef a tellement de savoir-faire, j’aurais aimé être comme lui.

13. Juilletistes/Aoûtiens

People who vacation in July and August, respectively. The French are so obsessed with their month-long summer vacations they even have a name for people based around what month you flee for the South of France! Those who travel in juillet (July) are juilletistes, and those who travel in août (August) are aoûtiens. Ex: Mes vacances sont en juillet. Je suis juilletiste.

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