Mot de passe

Anonymous hacker groupThe French term for password, ‘mot de passe’, is a bit of a no-brainer for English natives, one of those all-too-rare, word-for-word translations that feels like a gift when you learn a language.

It’s a different story when it comes to your PIN for banking and credit cards. There is a very good reason why the French call this ‘le code secret’ and not code pine, as I have been known to say. Which is how I discovered that ‘pine’ is slang for penis.

If only there was a mot de passe for language itself. Imagine that you could log in to your adopted tongue and start speaking, even thinking like a native. Quel bonheur!

When you think of all the words you need to know to master a second language, an estimate that ranges from 300 to 2,000, it is daunting. Certainly after thirty years of speaking French, I must have acquired almost that many. But I think it was easier than the challenge of staying on top of all of the various user ID’s and passwords that are required just to stay afloat online these days.

It doesn’t matter whether your native tongue is English, French or Swahili, when it comes to covering our accesses and keeping our identities secure, we are all in the same boat. That boat is dangerously overcrowded, has multiple leaks and is listing seriously starboard, Captain!

I first experienced password hell when I started working in the corporate world here in France. You needed to sign in to your workstation every day. Then you needed another password for your email, and another for the intranet. VPN and various services quickly multiplied both at work and at home, along with the number of passwords you needed to use them.

I remember my boss back in the day, a 90’s dress-for-success businesswoman with a blonde flip, joking about how she just used her husband’s first name for everything. We all followed suit. In fact, you could have probably hacked into most French women’s bank accounts with nothing more than the first name of their spouse and children.

Then some techno-terrorist in Corporate Security changed the rules. A password must contain at least eight letters and two numbers or symbols. You must keep it secret and not store it on paper or anywhere in written form. You must change it for each different site or service you use, and update it from time to time. Or risk giving away your personal identity and financial details to the entire internet. Woe to any fool who uses the same password on more than one site! Hackers are lurking just behind your keyboard.

Despite the fear of having one’s bank details misappropriated, the French took quickly to shopping and other online transactions. As an avid consumer of English books and imported delicacies such as crunchy peanut butter, I for one rejoiced at the advent of Amazon and never looked back. While my compatriots wail about the death of the store, I have gotten to know all of the delivery people near and far: Chronopost, Colissimo, UPS…they all beat a path to my door. Sure beats schlepping multiple klicks to the nearest store only to find they don’t have what I want.

One of the reasons I shop on Amazon is that they never ask for my password. Any new vendor means you have to create an account, add payment details and learn another mot de passe.

Now we have a password for just about everything, including a code for the gate to enter our residence and the alarm that guards us against marauding intruders. For the phone, the internet, the TV, not yet for the toaster.

I have a secret system for my passwords. Obviously I cannot divulge it here, but it involves variations on a mnemonic theme. As my memory is far from perfect, my back-up is a rather low-tech file that lists all of my various logins and passwords. Hackers would have a field day if they found it.

Et toi? How do you manage all this password malarkey?


  1. poshbirdy · March 3, 2016

    I have messed up some of my passwords so badly that I have now resorted to some rather rude words for a few of them. That seems to work. One particularly tiresome system I use at work requires me to update the password every three months. And I cannot repeat passwords. Surely one day I will simply run out of vocabulary – rude or otherwise!

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      I remember that! Continual updates and no repeats. Geez, those people are sadistic. 😉

  2. Food,Photography & France · March 3, 2016

    You seem to be telepathic…I’ve been ringing my bank trying to make an appointment but an anonymous robot keeps demanding that I enter on my phone a 10 figure code followed by a password neither of which I know and, what is more, was unaware of their existence. I’m not trying to access my account, just speak to someone:)

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Indeed, there must be something in the air – just had a similar experience with my bank. Before they will even give you any information on the phone, they want to know all kinds of details – account and card number, date of birth, etc. And that is just to ask a question!

      • zipfslaw1 · March 3, 2016

        The procedure for logging into my HSBC account is so arduous that I often risk overdraws rather than go through the hassle of checking my balance. Not adaptive!

  3. Susanne · March 3, 2016

    On some sites that I rarely visit, I have to reset my password all the time. I’m thinking that’s probably the most secure thing to do everywhere – just reset.

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Agree it is probably safest to reset and start over – and I do this a lot too 😉 – but it’s so darn clunky! I guess I’m too used to getting instant gratification online. I love the new Amazon tag line: Thought it, bought it. That’s me!

  4. George Lewis · March 3, 2016

    Try the msecure app , just don’t forget it’s password and make Peggy keep it .

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      I’ve tried other password apps but they are too much work! LastPass or OnePassword kept requiring a very long password which did not work across all my devices. Let me know if they invent a thought transfer one, that’ll be for me! 🙂

  5. Anne Donnelly · March 3, 2016

    Now certain browzers and operating systems will store your passwords for you, which I love because it’s one less step to logging in places, but it also makes me a little nervous that someone needs only to figure out my computer password……and then most other sites are already saved and ready to go for them to access. On the other hand, If someone tried to steal my identity or access my bank accounts, it wouldn’t get them very far anyway!!! 🙂

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Yes, I love the convenience of the stored login. I’m not too worried about anyone accessing my stuff as I almost always work in a (fairly) secure environment at home or in a dedicated business space. And like you, I always figure that the hackers must have bigger fish to catch than little old me!

  6. zipfslaw1 · March 3, 2016

    I had a lovely experience with an incorrect passcode the first time that I came to France to stay for a while.

    I made it from the airport to the hotel, shleped my bags to the door of the apartment building, put in the code on the numeric pad, and…nothing. I tried it every possible way: nothing. I had the phone number of a contact person, but no cell phone service on my American phone. What to do? Find a payphone. Everyone knows that there are no payphones any more, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I try up the street, and I try the other way down the street, and what do you know? There’s a payphone, maybe half a block from my apartment.

    So, I try to squeeze into the phone booth with my two suitcases and my back pack. Two young men at the cafe right next to the phone booth watch–hard to tell if they’re amused, or what. Whoops: the pay phone requires a phone card–not unusual at all, in countries other than the US. Where to get a phone card? Everyone will tell you how unfriendly the French are, and indeed I’ve read a reputable anthropologist and others talking about the French distaste for dealing with strangers, but what the heck, I don’t see a lot of options: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth, go over to the two young men, and ask them where I can buy a phone card. One of them looks around: “There’s a tabac (tobacco store) across the street.” So, I shlep across the street, buy a phone card, shlep back across the street, and squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack into the phone booth. By now, the two young men have become a table full of young folks. Everyone watches me as I put the phone card into the phone…and discover that the phone is broken.

    So, what the heck: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth and go up to the table full of young people. “I’m sorry to bother you.” (The most useful words in the French language, as far as I know: Je suis désolé de vous déranger.) “May I borrow your phone? My phone doesn’t work (holding it out to them).” One of them hands me his phone. I dial my contact person’s number: call doesn’t go through. Now what? I show one of the young folks the number, and he kindly points out that it’s written wrong–there’s an extra zero. So, I dial again, and this time the call goes through. I get voice mail, and leave a message saying that I’ll wait for her at the cafe on the corner by the apartment. I thank the young folks profusely, and head down to the cafe, where I take a seat, not knowing if my contact will show up in an hour, or eight hours, or not at all.

    So, I’m sitting there in the cafe having a bite to eat, when the guy who had lent me his phone rides up to me on a bicycle and hands me a cell phone! My contact person had called his number back, and he left wherever he was and drove back to find me! My contact person gave me the right number for the key pad, I thanked the young guy profusely, and he nodded and rode off. How incredibly nice was that?

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      That is quite the war story! You were very lucky to encounter a friendly Frenchman who was willing to go the extra mile for a foreigner. Just about everybody has cell phones these days but few would have been so willing to help a virtual unknown. Your experience reminds me of how frustrated I was to arrive in Paris back in the 80s. Even then the (few) phone booths required cards, and as a shy newbie with fledgling language skills, it was beyond me to get one, never mind figure out how to use it. Kudos to you for having had chutzpah to figure it out! I have also been confronted with the locked door issue and no idea how to get in. I remember once in le vieux Lyon where there was no code at all, and guests arriving before the locked door were forced to throw stones at the window above to attract the host’s attention!

  7. Osyth · March 3, 2016

    Here pretty much everyone asks for your Social Security number (I don’t have one, obviously) which seems to make a mockery of the whole thing at first base. I just long for the days of locked filing cabinets. So much more civilised. But given that I have to use passwords I have three – all alpha-numeric and quite complicated. If one fails, it must be one of the other two. Although there has been more than one occasion when my typing must have let me down and even then I have been locked out and dancing the apoplexy dance 😉

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Who designs these things? Surely there must always be a plan B for those who forget/mistype/mistake their passwords? As for the Social Security, don’t get me started. I have been doing battle with that lovely part of the French administration since last year when they forced me as a ‘frontalier’ to sign up again (even though my business is in Switzerland), then refused to give me access unless I pay double charges to the bloody URSSAF (their money-grubbing sister). SOS! 😉

      • Osyth · March 3, 2016

        Death and taxes – the only guarantees in life 😦

  8. Suzanne et Pierre · March 3, 2016

    Passwords is the bane of our lives these days. I also have a secret files where I have listed all of our passwords but this doesn’t include the password to get into the computer so maybe it is safe. The other reasons to accumulate passwords is for when you die so that the people dealing with your estate can get into your accounts to deactivate them or delete them…otherwise it is a nightmare for them to know where you have had a presence online. The only thing I need to do now is leave a secret message to my executor so he knows the password to get into our computer and where the secret file is…

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Those are some very good points about social media side. I never thought about the ‘in the unlikely event’ scenario, but perhaps I will create a file for my family just to be safe! When my Belle-mère passed away two years ago, all of her accounts remained active as my Beau-père didn’t have the heart to change anything. He still uses her Facebook account (although he has added his name). It is truly a huge issue for survivors.

  9. coteetcampagne · March 3, 2016

    I never thought about the potential computer access issues after my demise!

    I live with a man who, despite being a compuer engineer generally avoids them like the plague… and writes his occasional (none-work ) passwords on scraps of paper. I swear it’s because he knows these will go missing, thus abnegating him from any responsibility

    • MELewis · March 3, 2016

      Ha, ha….classic case of ‘le cordonnier est le plus mal chaussé (the cobblers’ children have no shoes). My husband also works in IT and was always making fun of me for not knowing my password. Now the shoe is on the other foot (clearly I am obsessed with shoes and feet today!) as he seems to share your guy’s casual approach to his information. Not that any of this worries him. I call him ‘Teflon man. Nothing sticks!’ 😉

  10. Kat · March 4, 2016

    Passwords, aargghh! This is a coincidence – just before reading your blog post, I was logged out of my company’s intranet because I keyed in the wrong password 3 times! So I have to contact the administrator to reset the password. Sigh, I’ll deal with it later. In the meantime, let me catch up on blogs now – it’s lunch break anyway 🙂

    • MELewis · March 4, 2016

      I feel better knowing that others suffer the slings and arrows of the ignoble password! Enjoy your lunch/blog break. Bon appétit!

      • Kat · March 4, 2016


  11. davidprosser · March 4, 2016

    I’m like you Mel, I have a written list of passwords for the hundreds of sites that require them. Some are simple using the same basic word followed by different numbers but I find I’ve forgotten to write some down and have to register again under a new one which then refuses to link to the old one.
    My favourite is my bank which has provided a little number generator which along side a question answered gets me in safely and which I don’t think can be hacked (easily) at least I don’t have to remember anything for that one or write it down.
    xxx Mammoth Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · March 5, 2016

      Some countries like the UK are way ahead in terms of online banking and security. Those little number generators are cool. (Maybe you could try them for the lottery?) Anything that gets me into my accounts safely and with a minimum of hassle works for me. Très bon weekend, mon ami! 🙂

  12. Mél@nie · March 7, 2016

    @”but it involves variations on a mnemonic theme.” – same here, Mel dear… 😉

    • MELewis · March 7, 2016

      And why am I not surprised? Les grands esprits se croisent! 😉

  13. acflory · March 7, 2016

    Gah…mot de passe is the bane of my life. Add online gamer passwords to your list and there I am, 63, memory like a sieve and a squillion passwords to deal with. Like you, I have a three page printout of my passwords, and during fire season, that printout goes with me everywhere. Talk about an open invitation. On a day to day basis, however, I use Paypal as much as humanly possible, prioritise the security level of each site – i.e. games = I can live with being hacked, banking = ultra secure with tokens etc., – and bumble along while waiting for a biometric global ‘passport’. Just hope I’m not too old by the time this mess is cleared up.

    • MELewis · March 9, 2016

      I can so relate! Not a gamer but same challenges. I also long for a bioemetric solution. My brother, an IT specialist, has warned against the dangers of this. He says that security is: “Something you own, something you know, or something you are.” Of course we don’t want anyone getting their body parts hacked along with their information, but relying on ‘something you know’ is dicey at best! 😉

      • acflory · March 9, 2016

        Ick…I hadn’t thought of that. 😦 Let’s hope they come up with something that saves ours minds AND our fingers.

  14. zipfslaw1 · March 9, 2016

    I was very happy the other day that I had read this post of yours, as I needed to discuss my code secret…

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Glad if it saved you any embarrassment!

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