If you have spent enough time conversing with French people, you may have heard of the deuxième degré.
The ‘second degree’ is often described as the final stage of fluency, which can only be understood after hundreds of hours of conversation in the language.
It can be compared to a form of sarcasm or irony and forms a large part of conversations among native speakers.
In French humour, le premier degré describes what is literal and should be taken at face value, while deuxième degré involves subtle sarcasm or irony.
It is not that different from the English form of sarcasm, however when your language skills are limited, it can be difficult to establish what is a joke and what is not.
It is often used if people want to get something across in a subtle way, in a technique called faire passer un message.
The second degree is frequently the source of cultural differences between French people and native English-speakers.
If you are confused by something you think could have another meaning, you can simply ask: ‘C’est du second degré?’.
There are three parts to the deuxième degré: irony, humour and insults.
Irony used to downplay something
In the second degree, irony will often be used to downplay something.
One example is responding with pas terrible to some good news. While you may think this simply means ‘not bad’, in actual fact it is often used to express something that was really great or better than expected.
It is used in the same way as an English speaker might reply ‘not bad’ ironically in response to someone telling you some really positive news, such as they were accepted to a top university or received a promotion at work.
In the past, terrible could be interpreted as ‘fantastic’ or ‘terrific’, so it is likely this phrase has stemmed from here. This meaning of terrible is much less common nowadays, however, and it is likely people are just being ironic when they say it.
Humour in the deuxième degré can come across as dark, which is why it is extra important not to take it at face value.
Often there will be jokes that we in English may not make and that therefore do not necessarily land well with Anglophone audiences, especially if related to topics that are taboo to talk about.
This is something to look out for in particular in French films and TV series, as it cannot be translated.
Alongside the gallows humour commonly found in the second degree, there is also a difference in how jokes are set up in French.
Whereas a lot of Anglophone humour is observational (and would fall under le premier degré), wordplay is common in French jokes (and can completely change the meanings of entire phrases), and can be difficult to pick up on unless you have real mastery of the language.
Often, the deuxième degré will be used to say the opposite of what the speaker actually means, just as happens in English.
This means that often language learners can take offence at something someone has said, which came across as mean but is actually just a joke.
As a simple example, if a friend was going on a night out, instead of telling them how nice they looked, you may say something like Je vois que t’as mis vraiment aucun effort (‘I see that you’ve made no effort’).
This is an example of the second degree – the speaker in this case is saying the opposite of what they mean.
If you are not used to it it may come across as harsh when in fact there is no malice intended.