Here are 17 commonly used French words that don’t exist in English, but knowing them will help you settle into the country and culture.
Every language has them, words you cannot properly translate into English. They are the most interesting terms, because they often define parts of a country’s culture. These French words speak of emotions and the way the French people express their feelings, but also some of France’s customs and habits – its etiquette even. A few also give you insight into the infamous French sense of humor.
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Sortable is an adjective more commonly used in the negative (“pas sortable“) to describe family members and friends that you can’t take out without fear of embarrassment. Sortir means going/taking out, so sortable is a neologism that very awkwardly translates to “that you can take out”.
Grandpas who make low-key racist jokes, friends who crab-walk when they’ve had one too many drinks, and children who use restaurant fixtures as monkey bars are all “pas sortable“.
Google will tell you that this untranslatable French word means impediment, but it is a lot subtler than that; literally, something that “prevents you”. Having an empêchement is a perfectly polite reason to excuse tardiness or even cancel plans. No need to scramble to make up a specific excuse: you just had an ‘unexpected last-minute change of plans’.
The feeling of dépaysement that arises from not being in your home country, in essence ‘un-country-ing’, refers to the strangeness and disorientation you feel in a foreign environment. However, it does not have the negative tint of homesickness or culture shock.
Dépaysement is often used to describe the positive feeling of discovering new horizons: landscapes, people, languages, food. It is something French people look forward to when going on vacation in a foreign land.
You’re unable to come up with the perfect witty comeback in the moment, but it hits you three hours later, usually in the shower? That irritating inclination is known as “staircase wit”. Diderot, the 18th-century philosopher, coined it when he realized he could only think of suitable retorts after walking away from an argument, literally… while walking down the stairs.
You drag yourself around with a profound feeling of melancholy, dissatisfaction, and discouragement? You have the spleen. Invented by French poet Baudelaire, this term derives from the English word for the actual organ. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, had theorized that our moods are related to our bodily humors and secretions – stemming from our spleen.
L’appel du vide
“The call of the void” refers to the impetuous urge to jump from high places. It can also more widely be used to describe all the other dark impulses that cross our minds: what if I drove into oncoming traffic? What if I jumped off the subway platform? What if I stuck my hand in this blender?
Interestingly, science says that these impulses are exactly the opposite of what they appear. They do not stem from a desire to die or hurt. Rather, they represent an affirmation of our will to live. In brief, l’appel du vide, which sporadically occurs for about half the population, scares us into being more cautious.
La douleur exquise
Of course the French live up to their reputation for romance and tragedy and have a special expression to describe unrequited love. But there’s no need to be French – or even a drama queen – to understand that particular pain.
If you’ve also spent hours staring out the window listening to sad songs, reveling in the grief that your affection is not returned, you’ve experienced la douleur exquise. Because let’s be frank: while heartbreak is painful, doesn’t it also make you feel exquisitely alive?
One of the most useful French words you’ll commonly hear is voilà. It can be used in a plethora of situations, and translated into anything from “there it is” to “finally”. For example, when something long expected finally happens: Voilà, enfin! Or when you have completed an assignment: Aah, voilà. Or even when you hand something over to someone: “Tiens, voilà!“.
Flâner is the art of wandering a city’s streets with no goal or final destination, simply for the pleasure of soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoying the moment for what it is, without any other goal in mind, is ingrained in French culture.
The same way the French will spend hours chatting away at the dinner table, they will find contentment in meandering a flea market, admiring wares, and conversing with other passers-by. Flâner‘s little sister can probably be another popular French pastime: le lèche-vitrines.
Some people hate shopping, and they’ll zero in on the one store that carries what they need. The French, on the other hand, will spend hours “window-licking”. They may not even be looking for something specific, or even buy anything at all! However, they’ll enjoy “flâner” while admiring the wares in the shop windows – maybe gathering inspiration, or simply enjoying looking at pretty things.
While the direct translation is to “take advantage”, the actual meaning of the verb profiter is more akin to “enjoy”. Along the same vein as flâner and lèche-vitrines, it also conveys the French art of simply being in the moment. You can profiter of the chance to hang out with someone you cherish, or of passing by a pastry shop that carries delicious croissants. But the word can also be used as a standalone: imagine yourself sitting at a sunny café terrace, enjoying a glass of wine, looking at the world pass by. What are you doing? “Je profite!“
Retrouvailles is simply the moment you finally see a loved one again after a long absence.
A French word with no translation but which we can all relate to, especially past the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it conjures up touching images of joy, affection, and effusive hugs. Note: retrouvailles is always used in the plural.
In English, we joke that stupid people were probably dropped on their head as a baby. In the same vein, if you’re acting crazy, French people will ask if you’ve fallen on your head: T’es tombé sur la tête?
Taking it one step further, there’s even an untranslatable French word to describe people who are acting erratically: frappadingue. This hybrid adjective is a compound of frapper (to hit) and dingue (crazy). While not an insult per se, it’s not very friendly either, even though the French are well known for enjoying a bit of affectionate ribbing.
There are apparently a vast array of crazy people in France, as this funny word is also used to describe them. However, it has a gentler meaning than frappadingue. It is rather used to characterize an oddball, an eccentric, or a scatterbrain. The word is an infamously bad friend to native English speakers, who have a particularly hard time pronouncing the French u.
“Quel tohu-bohu!“, you’ll understand the meaning of this word if you find yourself in discount superstore Tati on the day their cheap wedding dresses go on sale. This funny-sounding French word describes scenes of loud and agitated confusion. Think of the pit at a rock concert, or a street demonstration (which the French are famous for). Noise and chaos are what make the tohu-bohu.
Interestingly, this hard to translate French word is derived from Biblical Hebrew. Tohu-wa-bohu depicts the formless state of the earth before light was created.
Americans enjoy making fun of people who “didn’t inhale”; the French went so far as to create a word for it. In great part, to shame the posers.
Crapoter is a verb that describes the act of smoking a cigarette (or something else) without inhaling. Teenagers love to mock their friends who hold the smoke in their mouth instead of taking a lungful: “Haha, tu crapotes!”
We saved the most important untranslatable French word for last. A national pastime, râler is not really complaining. It is neither loud, nor whiny, nor boisterous. It is rather how the French continuously express their ongoing dissatisfaction with the world. No inconvenience is too insignificant to refrain from râler, and in fact, the French even do it alone at home. To practice, just add a few decibels and swear words to whatever you want to mumble under your breath.