Bonnes femmes

I am a good woman but please don’t call me a bonne femme. This is one of those literal translations that gets you into trouble every time. The word ‘bonne’, the feminine form of ‘bon’ or good, is loaded with the potential to insult or outright offend.

‘Une bonne femme’ is the familiar French expression for a woman or a wife. Once a perfectly respectable term, it has now become pejorative. It is not necessarily rude but it should be used with caution.

‘Contes de bonnes femmes’ are old wives tales.

Its homologue, bonhomme, means a friendly little fellow and is often used to refer to children or a bonhomme de neige — snowman. Bonnefemme de neige? Only with tongue firmly in cheek.

Many recipes include the words ‘bonne femme’.  They generally refer to simple, home-cooked dishes like soups, fish and chicken but some are actual culinary references, like sauce bonne femme. Here’s the recipe in English.

La bonne is also a maid. To refer to ‘une bonne à tout faire’ (good for doing everything) is a correct use of the term for hired hep but also has some rather naughty connotations — just google it.

The worst trap is, of course, the easiest one to fall in. Imagine you have want to say that a woman is good. A good person. Do not, under any circumstances, say “elle est bonne.” This has a sexual connotation that will upset or confuse or even just amuse your audience.

What is it with the feminine forms of words in French? Another word, chatte, is even worse. It is virtually impossible to talk about one’s female cat without feeling like an extra in a bad porn film. I speak from painful experience. Each year when I take my, ahem, pussy, to the veterinarian for her shots I find myself doing mental gymnastics to avoid the dreaded term. We have two cats, a male and a female, so at one point in the conversation it becomes necessary to distinguish them. The flush on my face as I leave the vet’s office is not just from schlepping the two cat carriers.

The photo featured above is from the 1960 ‘new wave’ film by Claude Chabrol, Les Bonnes Femmes. I haven’t seen it but want to after discovering the post about it on this fabulous blog for fans of world cinema.

The problem, ironically, is finding such films in France. You can stream it on Amazon Prime in the US but not in France. Here you can buy the DVD but what’s the point? I only want to watch it once.

I’ve been thinking lately how much of our cultural gender bias is embedded in language. I’m not one to agree with the substitution of ‘their’ for personal pronouns like his and her; that is a deformation of the language that my inner word nerd finds offensive. But I wouldn’t mind the creation of a new, neutral term.

And I would be very happy if someone found a way to say ‘bonne’ nicely in French.

Any thoughts?

29 thoughts on “Bonnes femmes

  1. The terms “bonne femme” and “bonhomme” are also used daily in a neutral sense . “Il y avait une bonhomme (une bonne femme) qui attendait devant la porte” . This means an unknown person . In the Middle Age “les bons hommes” and “les bonnes femmes” was the common term to name the Cathars, and I bet there was no sexual connotation 🙂.

    I know the possible problem with your “chatte” but we see it is only a problem if the speaker makes it a problem, I witnessed many times when a woman was using this word about her pet straight and openly, and nobody even smiled . Most of French people never use this term in a sexual slang meaning actually . If it matters for you you can say “mon chat”, “ma pauvre chatte”,or tell her name instead .
    About “bonne”, to say a woman is full of kindness, of generosity, I admit there is a problem and we get by saying “elle est pleine de bonté” or any phrase using “bonté” to be perfectly clear . If you mean she is good at a sport or activity you must complete it : “elle est bonne en natation, en jardinage” and there never will be any misunderstanding .

    Did you know that in the original French Asterix one of the four Roman camps surrounding Asterix’ village is named “Petibonum” ?

    1. This is very helpful, Phil! Your suggestion re ‘chatte’ confirms what I have long suspected: composure is everything when it comes to handling challenging language situations. I fear it will take a more poised, less twisted mind than mine to pull it off but I will give it a try! 😳 I like the last suggestion for expressing female kindness. ‘Bonté’ is not a word I would have thought of!

  2. What a daunting situation to be so boxed in by the language itself. It sounds comical to read about but I’d no doubt also find it uncomfortable to negotiate all the tricky innuendo. I learn so much from your blog!

    1. It is daunting but I think it feels boxed in when you take the point of view of an outsider, as I do here. Once you’re in the box, it’s really not so bad. But it is tricky going, indeed. Thankfully the French are forgiving — and I am still learning!

  3. I learned through a friend’s inability to contain his laughter that “chatte” has a non-zoological connotation. But I’d never heard about this “bonne femme” business, so I owe you (and Phildange too) a big MERCI for furthering my education! My goodness, but the path to learning French is littered with potholes …

    1. It is indeed a meandering path and may my pothole-sprains be your gains! As long as it doesn’t discourage you, Heide, and please never forget that I vent 30 years of pent up frustrations here. France is a life-long lesson, but at the same time, so rewarding. 😊

      1. Oh, don’t worry about discouraging me. Au contraire — it’s good to know I’m not alone in my struggles! 🙂

  4. Walking this afternoon down a mountain road, in principle, two-way; in practice, one at a time. Plus there was a crowd of hikers of a certain age. A car nearly grazed one of the ladies, who shook her fist and hollered “Attention aux mémés!”
    Compared to “granny,” “bonne femme” is mild.

  5. It’s because there are a lot of French languages, different social groups, different levels of language, a hellova lot of different slangs – and it’s an endless pleasure to artistically mix all of them to make oral declarations, I adore doing that, that’s why I feel forever deeply handicapped in a foreign language I don’t master perfectly . And I don’t master any .
    Pardon me, my medieval old PC is also handicapped, on this blog I have no “Like” button excepted when someone answers my comments .

      1. Bravo pour “mon oeil” . But i only master French as an instrument to play with virtuosity . But it doesn’t matter really, since it is the only Language .😀

  6. For good or bad, British humour is almost entirely based on the double entendre but I really don’t see you as a Mrs Slocombe (Google it). I get into trouble in France when I tell people I’m feeling really hot…

    1. Thanks for the reminder — I loved Mrs. Slocombe! Used to watch ‘Are you being served?’ back in the 80s. As for French, you will of course get into trouble if you go around telling people you ARE hot rather than ‘have’ hot or it is hot — but I suspect you know that! 😝

  7. On a very hot day on holiday in Montpellier I went to a shop that sold only hats. The kind sales assistant rejected one I had picked out, as being “trop mémé”. I felt flattered as I am 78.

  8. If it’s any consolation, the same applies in Quebec. Hé la bonne femme! As in, hey, Wife! But if rather be a bonne femme than a mémé – I’m not ready for that one.
    For me, the intonation or emphasis of “bonne” makes a difference. Mind you, even if were to say: Elle est vraiment une bonne femme. I would probably add the reasons that she does x y, z…

    Your posts make me think of things I take for granted. (I may have an English name but I’m a real “Bloke Pea Soup” or a “Square Head Frog” 😉

    1. Wow, the comments on this blog are such an education. I had no idea what either of those expressions meant! Thank you, Dale! 🤩
      P.S. I don’t think there’s much risk of you being called “mémé’ any time soon.

  9. I doubt I’ll be speaking French again any time soon, but thanks for this post coz I had absolutely no idea there were any of these connotations attached to either ‘bonne’ or ‘chatte’. Re the cat though, I wonder if it’s similar to the way the word for female dog has taken on nasty connotations in English?

    1. I hope it will come in useful at some point in the future. Not sure about the connection with bitch. ‘Chatte’ is more of a sexual term than even the dreaded ‘c-word’ in English, which seems to used as more of an insult to describe men. Yet you make an interesting point. Hmm…will have to think about that! 🧐

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