The French language often uses reduplication – the doubling up of just the stem or of the whole word, perhaps with a very slight change – either in familiar speech or while talking with small children.
While in English, for example, you might say ‘okey-dokey’, ‘bye-bye’ or ‘fifty-fifty’ in colloquial speech, in French you also might hear ‘ciao ciao’, ‘moitié-moitié’ (half and half, or to go halves) and ‘coucou’ (hello, or perhaps in some circumstances, cooee!).
In English, you might ask a child if they want to go ‘pee-pee’, just as in French you would say ‘pipi’. Family member names also become reduplicated, with ‘tati’ (auntie) instead of ‘tante’ (aunt), and ‘tonton’ instead of ‘oncle’ (uncle).
Reduplication also occurs regularly in vocabulary relating to animals, especially for children. For example, ‘dada’ is used to mean ‘horsie’ and ‘toutou’ is ‘doggy’.
Like in English, animal noises often get doubled up, which adds to their onomatopoeic quality; an English duck’s ‘quack quack’ is a French duck’s ‘coin-coin’, a crow would ‘crôa crôa’, a cat might ‘ronronne’ (purr) and a dog would ‘ouaf ouaf’ (woof woof).
People’s names might also be transformed into affectionate diminutive or pet names involving reduplications. Louise may become Loulou, Florence goes to Flo Flo, Annie to Nini, Laurence to Lolo, André to Dédé and Christophe might be Totophe.
Thank you to the Connexion readers who have shared their own reduplication examples with us; here are some:
- Oh là là ! - perhaps the most obvious example of a French phrase which uses reiteration is ‘oh là là’, which is used – both in France and across the Channel – to express surprise, particularly with relation to admiration.
For example, you may say ‘Oh là là, c’est trop beau !’ (Wow, it’s so beautiful).
- Dur dur - Saying something is ‘dur dur’ (literally: hard hard) means that it is tough or really hard
- Un vieux teuf-teuf - ‘Teuf-teuf’ can translate as ‘choo-choo’ or ‘chug-chug’, reflecting the sound that a train or car might make. It can also be used to refer to an old, rickety vehicle, hence the ‘vieux teuf-teuf’ phrase.
- Bobo - ‘Bobo’ can either be used to refer to a slight injury or scratch, or to a ‘bourgeois Bohemian’ or perhaps, a ‘champagne Socialist’.
- Dodo - ‘Dodo’, taken from the verb ‘dormir’, means sleep, as in the phrase: ‘métro, boulot, dodo’. Perhaps the closest English translation would be ‘beddy-byes’, which even if not reiterative, uses alliteration to infantilise the phrase.
- Mimi - Like ‘mignon’, ‘mimi’ means cute or sweet. In childlike language it can also mean a cat or pussy cat.
- Pim pim - This onomatopoeic expression might be used to refer to a sudden noise or shot.
- Frou-frou - As the sound of the words might suggest, ‘frou-frou’ means ‘frill’ or ‘flounce’, and can also denote the sound of material rustling or swishing.
- Ce n’est pas jojo - Saying ‘ce n’est pas jojo’ means ‘that’s not very nice’, but the word ‘jojo’ on its own means ‘rascal’ or ‘scallywag’
- Doudou - A ‘doudou’ is a child’s cuddly toy or comfort blanket. There also exists the word ‘doudoune’, which can translate to ‘down jacket’ or ‘winter jacket’.
- Nounou - A child’s ‘nounou’ is their nanny or childminder.
- Blabla - Just like in English, ‘blabla’ is used to reflect how a person chatters, blathers or prattles on about something uninteresting.
- Mémé and pépé - ‘Mémé’ can mean ‘granny’, ‘nana’, ‘nanny’, ‘gran’, but also an ‘old girl’ or an ‘old biddy’. Similarly, ‘pépé’ can be ‘grandad’ or ‘grandpa’, but also ‘old man’.
- Fifille - By repeating the first two letters of ‘fille’ twice, ‘girl’ becomes ‘little girl’.
- Dégueu-dégueu - While ‘dégueulasse’ is slang for ‘disgusting’, ‘manky’ or ‘gross’, 'dégueu-dégueu' makes the word even more colloquial.
- Bip bip! - This phrase is very similar to the English ‘beep beep!
- Bibi - ‘Bibi’ would translate into English as ‘yours truly’, ‘me’ or even ‘muggins here’, depending on the context.
- Guili-guili - ‘Faire des guili-guili à quelqu’un’ means ‘to tickle someone’, and ‘guili-guili’ is also what you might say while tickling a child, like the English ‘tickle-tickle’.
- Toc-toc - This reduplication can either mean ‘knock knock’ or ‘rat-a-tat-tat’, or also ‘batty’, ‘cuckoo’ or ‘doolally’.
- Toto - A ‘toto’ is either a ‘(head)louse’ or a ‘dimwit’
- Faire des chichis - A ‘chichi’ can mean a ‘doughnut’ or ‘fuss and bother’, so ‘faire des chichis’ refers to someone making a big fuss or going over the top, creating unnecessary problems.
For example, if you invite friends over to your house for a drink but they discover on arrival that you have hired caterers, they might say that you have ‘fait des chichis’. In this way, ‘sans chichi’ means ‘with no fuss’.
- Prout-prout - This phrase is used to refer to someone who is ‘hoity-toity’, ‘stuck up’ or who is putting on airs.
- Totoche - ‘Totoche’ is slang for the French word ‘tétine’ (dummy, pacifier).
- Miam-miam - This can translate directly into English as ‘yum-yum’ or ‘nom-nom’.
- Kif-kif - This means ‘the same’.
Contributions came from Simon, a retired physician living in Gironde, who started learning French in 1969, picking up some of these expressions along the way, and Barbara Harold in Ardèche, who has lived in France for decades and has heard some such phrases through her grandchildren.
She first came to France in 1964, and soon picked up lot of useful French phrases in Provence youth hostels. She later worked as an industrial photographer's apprentice and then a teacher of business English, and after retirement, volunteered at the local village school.
If you can think of any more we can add to the list please send them to us via firstname.lastname@example.org