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There is no irony in the French language - apart from the word ‘bref’

In our writer's experience those who say they will be brief are anything but

Do not be fooled by someone saying the French word ‘bref’ meaning ‘in brief’ Pic: CREATISTA / Shutterstock

For many English-speakers living in France, one accusation laid at the door of the French is that irony is sometimes lost on them. 

However, there is one linguistic tool that, to my ear anyway, is wilfully used with absolutely unintended irony, both in terms of its usage in everyday conversation and its exact meaning. 

Which is ironic.

Read more: The best quips from French politicians in 2022

Conclusion to the story may be imminent

Anytime you listen to someone babbling on at length in French, perhaps recounting a yarn or complaining about this or that, they might be heard, mid-flow, to utter the word bref

The word means “in brief”, implying that they are about to curtail their expansive discourse and finally reach some conclusion so that everyone may carry on with their lives. 

In my experience it is only those who are anything but “brief” that use the word bref, and its appearance only marks a pause for breath before they continue.

The history of ‘bref’

The word itself is very old in French (it first appeared in the 11th century), and comes from the Latin brevis, meaning small or short. 

Initially used as an adjective to describe something of short duration (such as a speech), by the 17th century it came to be used as an adverb, in isolation, with the meaning of “to say in a few words”, or in the expression en bref, which means  “in summary”.

Just another ‘filler’ word

Its wanton use today infuriates some French linguistic purists. 

Read more: Really speak like a local… use these French filler words

As Le Figaro pointed out in a 2018 editorial rant, “the word bref is no longer used today to show precision but to remain evasive”, and it is hard to disagree with their frustration.

The final, bona fide irony in all of this, is that the French 'bref' is an impressively shorter way to express the equivalent English phrase: “to cut a long story short”.

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