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Guimbarde, bagnole: How to speak about cars in French slang

We also look at the origins of the traditional word ‘voiture’

The French word for a car is, as everyone knows, une voiture Pic: antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

The French word for a car is, as everyone knows, une voiture. It is derived from the Latin vectura (“the human-directed movement of things or people between locations”), specifically from vectus, the past participle of the verb vehere. By around 1200 the word had morphed into veiture, in the sense of “means of transport” and by end of the 19th century, an ‘automobile’. [Let us not forget that, to confuse matters, an autocar means a coach in French.]

However, many French people will use the (perfectly polite) slang term bagnole when referring to a car. It is the equivalent of saying ‘wheels’ or ‘motor’ in English. But it has pejorative implications, because the word bagnole is a derivative of tipper/dumper from the Latin “benna”. This described a vehicle or cart used to transport raw materials (such as water, stone, gold, wood, plants, spices, fabrics and even animals)... but not human passengers. 

Burdened by the weight of its contents, said vehicle moved slowly – which lies at the heart of the modern day nuance of bagnole – a slow, broken down car or, as we would say, an ‘old banger’.

Another word used to describe a dodgy motor is guimbarde, which also has its origins as an uncomfortable, inelegant mode of transport. Again, to add to the tricksiness, it is also the French word for both a Jew’s harp and a beat-up guitar.

Tacot is another slang word for a car – a word which was also previously used for a trundling and noisy regional train. 

Another derivative of the Latin benna is benne, which is widely used to describe tipper trucks, skips and other vessels used to stock or transport materials.

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