From job titles to lyrics, many French words do not have a direct translation in English, leaving English-speakers with the difficult task of deciphering the nuanced meaning. Here are some of the best untranslatable French words…
Un frileux/une frileuse
This is an adjective used for a person who gets cold easily, however there is no direct equivalent in English. Instead, we would translate it as a phrase such as ‘sensitive to the cold’.
For example: ‘Les personnes âgées sont souvent frileuses alors l’hiver est difficile (Older people are often sensitive to the cold so winter is difficult)’.
This is a word used when you find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings. It comes from the verb dépayser which can be translated as the idea of taking a break from your usual routine or to have a change of scenery.
The word can have both negative and positive connotations.
For example, it could suggest disorientation in a new place, or feeling like you do not belong somewhere. More positively, it can also be used to describe the feeling you are seeking when going on holiday.
For example, you could use it to describe going away to escape your daily routine.
Connexion readers could, for example, use it to explain how you are feeling about being in a new country: Notre vie ici est un dépaysement total (Our life here is a complete change of scenery).
Yaourter/Faire du yaourt
This is another great word for language learners. ‘Yaourter’ is when you are speaking or singing in another language, but making lots of mistakes and misrepeating what you think you hear.
It is commonly used when people do karaoke and copy the noises they hear incorrectly.
For example, ‘Il a yaourté des chansons françaises toute la soirée’ (He sang the wrong lyrics to French songs all night).
A literal translation would be ‘yoghurting’, but of course this does not carry any meaning in English! A similar equivalent could be ‘butchering’, as in: ‘He was butchering the lyrics.’
The students I work with are training to be ‘animateur/animatrice’, and there is an endless struggle in explaining to them that there is not a direct translation for this job title in English.
While often they refer to themselves as ‘animators’, in English this is someone who works in visual animation, for example making TV shows like Wallace and Gromit.
Instead in English the translation would depend on the context in which an animateur is working.
If they are working in a school or with children, they may be a ‘support worker’ or ‘kids’ club leader’, while if they are working in an adult institution they may be considered an ‘events facilitator’.
They could also be called a ‘team leader’, an ‘activity leader’, or if they work on TV, a ‘host’ or ‘presenter’.
This again has no direct equivalent; it suggests wandering around aimlessly but happily, while appreciating your surroundings.
You can use it in the same sense we would say to have a look around the shops; flâner dans les magasins creates the idea of wandering in and out of shops looking at the products without having any intention of buying anything specific.
It can also suggest doing nothing much.
For example, you may profiter du week-end pour flâner (to take advantage of the weekend to laze around/do nothing). A possible English equivalent could be ‘to mooch’ or ‘potter about’.
Bouquiner is an informal way to talk about reading, but the connotation is cosier than ‘lire’.
It suggests curling up with a good book, or to have your head in a book, rather than the idea of reading for school, academia or work.
Après le travail ce soir je vais bouquiner dans mon lit (After work this evening I am going to curl up in bed with my book).
Faire des papouilles
This refers to loving strokes or caresses you might get from a loved one and has a similar meaning to caresser; for example if they are stroking your back or your head.
It can also mean to tickle someone gently, and in this context may be used when talking about tickling the tummy of a cat or dog.
Elle a fait des papouilles à son chien (She stroked her dog). A possible English translation could be ‘to pet’, although this is more US English than UK.
Avoir l’esprit d’escalier
This is a French phrase that describes the feeling when you come up with the perfect retort or reply too late, after the moment has passed. It literally translates as having ‘staircase wit’.
There is a phrase in English that describes the same thing - ‘escalator wit’ - but this is not widely known or used.
The phrase is thought to refer to the visual idea of reaching the top or bottom of a staircase, and only then remembering that you have forgotten something at the other end.
Originally this term comes from smoking; the idea of someone taking a puff of a cigarette without actually inhaling.
For example, Elle ne sait pas fumer, elle crapote (She doesn’t know how to smoke, she puffs without inhaling).
However, more broadly speaking it can also be used as a means of describing someone who is fake or who pretends to be something they are not.
In casual UK English, a translation could be ‘faking’; or in US slang vernacular, ‘fronting’.
This is a word my students often use to describe the French approach to life.
While dictionaries will tell you the translation for râler is to complain, it is actually more nuanced than this and there is not an exact translation.
The word refers to the idea of grumbling or complaining about anything and everything, no matter how small.
For example we could say that, râler permet d'exprimer mon mécontentement, which translates as ‘complaining or grumbling allows one to express their unhappiness’ with a situation.
A possible English slang translation could be ‘venting’, as in, someone who is expressing all of their complaints loudly.
French also uses a similar ‘ral’ expression to describe feeling ‘fed up’ or ‘sick of something’: ‘ras-le-bol’, as in ‘J’ai en ras-le-bol’. It almost literally means ‘I’ve had it up to here’, as in, ‘my bowl is full’.