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The word ‘commode’ has many uses in the French language

Here are three ways to use this ‘accommodating’ word to describe furniture and, more surprisingly, people. Justin Postlethwaite explains

Annoyed looking older woman

'Elle n'est pas très commode' was the overheard criticism of the neighbour Pic: / Shutterstock

Over the space of a few days recently, my ear was piqued by a French word used in two entirely different contexts, first employed as a noun, and then later as an adjective. 

The word was commode, whose meaning to the average English-speaker's sensibility is most commonly 'a chest of drawers' – and in this case, it was all about a matching pair of charming 'meubles de style' (reproduction furniture), offered at a very 'bon prix' (good price), at the local brocante one Sunday morning.

They offered great potential as bedside tables.

So far, so simple. 

Noun and adjective

However, another usage of the word commode came as something of a surprise, in that it was used in conversation as an adjective to describe – in not too flattering terms – someone's personality. 

'Elle n'est pas très commode' came the overheard criticism of someone's neighbour.

Whilst I was aware of the word's use to describe an object as being handy, practical or well-suited to its purpose, it can also be applied to a person's character – someone good-natured, accommodating, or who makes others around them feel good. 

Yet in the overheard unneighbourly rant, it implied stronger opprobrium, as if the person criticised was demanding, cold, unapproachable or unable to take a joke. 

Describes a ‘push-over’

Research then led to the discovery of yet another nuanced meaning of commode – someone can be accused of being 'trop commode' (ie. too accommodating) meaning that they are a soft touch. 

One might, for example, use it to describe a boss who lets their staff get away with doing the bare minimum – 'c'est un chef commode'

Or 'un chef idéal', one might say.

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Quand même: The French phrase for almost every occasion








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