Scour the internet or a local newspaper classified column for a second-hand car and your eye is inevitably drawn to the vehicle’s mileage (kilométrage in French) when assessing its appeal.
But when talking about cars to someone in the street or amongst friends, a French person might not use such a formal word – a fairly common word to use is the more slangy ‘bornes’ – as in “Combien de bornes?” (What’s the mileage?).
When offering directions, too, you would not necessarily use the word kilomètre. Instead you might say “C’est à vingt bornes d’ici” (It’s 20 kilometres from here). So borne serves as a direct translation of kilometre. But wait...
As you might expect, the word borne is a multi-meaning trickster, with plenty of its other uses being measurement related.
For instance, a borne is most traditionally used to describe an old milestone in the road – a borne kilométrique can be spotted every kilometre.
A borne can also refer to an electric car recharging terminal.
A borne describes the upper or lower limits in a range of values, while its usage to describe a boundary, border or limit, can be metaphorical as well as literal. For example, “dépasser les bornes” means to “go too far” and to be “sans bornes” means ‘boundless’ or ‘limitless’. The opposite, ie. limited (borné) – is used in French to describe someone who is intolerant or stubborn.
When used as a verb, borner means to restrict or limit – something the word itself appears to disregard.