One of the pleasures of learning French, or indeed any foreign language, is to come across words and phrases which have no equivalent in your own mother tongue. These usually have to be translated by sentences to explain their meaning: “schadenfreude” is “pleasure taken in the misfortune of others”, “noblesse oblige” points out that “rank and privilege entails a duty to those less fortunate.”
English has never had any problem in absorbing such words and phrases; in the 15th century there were words in regular use from a dozen languages. This is in direct contrast to the Académie Française which has been waging a protracted and futile war in an effort to keep French pure and free from pernicious foreign intrusions.
Two of my favourites which don’t have a single word translation are:
“la ruelle” which is the space between the bed and the wall and “frou-frou” which is the agreeable sound made by a woman’s dress as she passes by in the ballroom, rather weakly translated as “rustle.”
Another is the expression “l’esprit de l’escalier” – “the wit of the staircase”, this refers to the witty reply or comment you think of as you go downstairs, which you might have ideally made a short time before in the salon.
Finally – and I could go on all night, is a phrase I have only just found: “l’appel du vide” – “the call of the void” – which is that unaccountable feeling you sometimes get, of wanting to throw yourself off a bridge or cliff.
Roger Ayling – creator of Boney French – a simple, down to earth and amusing approach to learning French.
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French words and phrases which have no equivalent in your own language