A very handy little phrase to throw into everyday conversation in France is ‘au pif’, pronounced ‘oh peef’.
Using it serves two purposes: firstly, it shows that you have a handle on a little bit of slang French, thereby convincing a neighbour or apéro guest that your language skills are coming along very nicely, thank you very much.
Secondly, it covers your back if you are guessing the answer to something and trusting your gut feeling.
Here’s how: au pif literally means ‘in the nose’ (the word pif is translated into English as hooter, conk or schnoz, and can also refer to one’s sense of smell). However, in the context of providing a number, measurement or fact, it means you have been guided purely by instinct or evidence. ‘At a guess’ or ‘off the top of my head’ would be the best equivalents found in English.
For example: “Au pif, je dirais que ca pèse 20 kilos” (At a guess, I’d say that weighs 20 kilos). It is an informal phrase and certainly not one to use when with someone in authority – you wouldn’t tell the taxman your calculations were ‘au pif’.
Other words and phrases to imply an estimate in French include: à l’estime, à peu près, à vue de nez, au jugé and au pifomètre.
Our favourite, though, is au doigt mouillé (with a wet finger) – a reference to sticking one’s index finger in your mouth and raising it vertically to see which way the ever-changing wind is blowing in that split second.
Needless to say, as is often the case with phrases in this column, au pif also, confusingly, has another nuance to be aware of: it can also mean ‘randomly’.