Funny you should say that – the language of French laughter

Humour can be a challenge to talk about in any language – how do you put into words that ephemeral feeling which makes you spontaneously laugh or smile?

Two people laughing and holding a drink on a sofa in France.
Laughter is simple, humour is more complicated

You need to take a little care when you are translating your thoughts on the subject into French. 

I was amazed to find out that the perfect phrase for describing a clever piece of insinuation, double entendre, is not French at all. 

It was certainly borrowed from the French some time before the 19th century, but after that it lapsed in the original language and no longer needs to be in italics. 

In France, if you want to draw attention to a remark that slips in its real meaning under cover, you need to say, sous entendre. Another way of expressing the same idea is deuxième degré meaning that a remark should not be taken literally (at the premier or first degree). 

Comedian is another word you need to get used to using in a different way. Un comédien is a false friend. It is an actor who may just as well be serious as funny. A comedian in the sense of someone who makes the public laugh is un humoriste or un comic.

Read more: 8 false friends from my French students that we can learn from

Sens de l’humour

Those two sources of confusion out of the way, we can get on with the serious business of talking about what tickles your funny bone – which in French is not an anatomical metaphor but a prosaic sens de l’humour.

Let’s start with a smile (sourire, both noun and verb) and move on to a laugh (rire, again both noun and verb). If a joke (blague) is funny you have a range of synonyms to choose from to make your conversation varied: amusant, rigolo or drôle (which does not have its English nuance of a particularly clever remark). 

If you find something hilarious, you could say it is hilarant, though that sounds a bit insipid. You would do better to reach for one of the following evocative phrases, properly conjugated: éclater de rire (burst out laughing) ; s’écrouler de rire (collapse or be doubled up in laughter); être mort de rire (to die laughing).

As in English, there are two other important aspects to this subject. 

One is the important difference between “funny ho ho” and “funny peculiar”, even if there is sometimes a crossover between the two. 

Read more: Le? La? Why learning the gender of a noun makes life in France easier

You will need to take care with your nuances if your friend sprouts a wart on his nose overnight. It’s not, of course, funny in the sense of being a cause for laughter but is certainly funny that it occurred. In this context, you might want to use the words bizarre or curieux which both have close English equivalents.

The other way you may want to use the language of humour is when something is not funny. “Non, mais sans blague” (I’m not joking) you may want to say to someone who doesn't believe what you are saying is true, and in the opposite direction you could ask, “Tu rigoles, ou quoi?” (“are you joking or what?”)

Humour can be a useful form of communication or it can be the cause of conflict. There is a big difference between rire de quelqu’un and rire avec quelqu’un – to laugh at someone or with them. 

As a foreigner it can be difficult to know whether you are sharing the joke or you are being made fun of yourself. Se moquer – to mock – is widely heard and depending on the context it can imply anything from mild teasing to abusive ridicule. 

It takes time and practice to know when to take offence at a comment and when to laugh it off.