Les OVNIs

Once you’ve more or less mastered the basics of French conjugation and picked up enough vocabulary to find your way around a conversation, you may think you’ve got it all figured out. That’s when you discover one of the mysteries of spoken French: acronyms and abbreviations for all kinds of words and phrases.

The French may be forgiven for being so enamoured of the short form. Let’s face it, between killer traffic jams, snail-like administrative procedures and the endless verbiage needed to say even the simplest things, you need to save time where you can.

As usual, I stumbled my way through various bloopers and blunders before fully understanding how to use these short forms.

My late Belle-mère was impressed when early on I took a liberal approach to mastering such terms. The baccalaureate exam is called le bac, la climatisation becomes la clim’ and the expression ‘à tout à l’heure’ (see you later), becomes simply ‘à tout!’. I decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

“Ce n’est pas oblig!” I declared one day, when she suggested I should do something or other.

“Quoi?” asked that lady in astonishment, before cracking up. I learned that for all the French love short forms, it is obligatory (and not ‘oblig’) to wait for someone else to invent them first.

So it is that you must simply learn, case by case, what things are called in spoken French.

That fine institution of French life, la Sécurité Sociale, is called la Sécu, but the organization that you must deal with for financial reasons is called la CPAM (letters spelled out, for Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie). That the special address form CEDEX (pronounced ‘say-dex’) stands for ‘Courrier d’entreprise à distribution exceptionnelle’. That the cute-sounding ‘DOM-TOM’ is code for all those overseas French territories like Guadeloupe.

Needless to say, there is no obvious logic to explain why some acronyms are spelled out letter by letter and others spoken like a word.

Every area of French life has its own set of acronyms and abbreviations. I believe that the high-minded public servants who graduate from the French National School of Administration or l’ENA (pronounced: Lay-na) take entire courses on how to make up complicated names that will create unpronounceable acronyms. Case in point: La loi Hadopi (Haute Autorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur internet), an entire administration created to protect the rights of works and people online. What a mouthful! Much easier to talk about les GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), pronounced ‘gaffa’.

If you’re curious, here’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to common French acronyms.

But don’t worry if you hear one and still feel like an OVNI (objet volant non-identifié) or UFO as we say in French to describe those stranger-in-a-strange-land moments.

Just remember: we are not alone!

9 thoughts on “Les OVNIs

  1. Quite true. Even as a French-speaking person coming from a different country, we had to learn all of the short-forms and acronyms as we don’t have the same (mostly for acronyms). In Quebec, we don’t shorten words as often as the French do though it is becoming fashionable now as we are getting more and more people immigrating from France… (Suzanne)

    1. Thanks for sharing your French Canadian point of view, Suzanne (and nice to see you back by the way!). Interesting that more French people are settling in Canada, wonder what’s up with that? I see potential culture clashes to write about on a future visit to la belle province (hopefully next Christmas).

      1. There has been immigration from France to Quebec for a long time but it comes in waves. One of those waves started about 10 years ago as the economy of France started to slow down. There are people who come as students and then stay. Others emigrate with a job offer (for example, Quebec hospitals have gone to France to recruit nurses) and others come without a job hoping to find out more easily than in France. There are indeed some cultural and languague clashes. Some French people can’t adapt to the life here as they except to find a mini France when in reality we are North American speaking French so with a very different culture. Also, some can’t adapt to our winters! In Montreal, one of the neighbourhood (Plateau Mont-Royal) is populated with lots of French nationals; so much so that Pierre & I often call it the 21th arrondissement! There are a complete industry of books on how to adapt to the life in Quebec: differences in culture, language, political and government.

    1. Thanks Becky! I certainly never imagined that I would do either of those things. You’d be surprised what you might do if you found yourself engaged to a Frenchman! 😍

  2. There is a form of logic for acronyms to be spelt or pronounced as a single word . When the letters can’t suit altogether to sound as a French word we spell the letters : SNCF, EDF, CPAM, RATP ( because “TP” is not an euphonic ending in classical French) … When it is possible we make a word : HADOPI and GAFA yes, but also l’ENA, la CAF (essential part of la Sécu), CEDEX, etc …
    Note, if the new word has only two letters, even if it sounds good we spell each letter : FO (the Union) . I don’t say there can’t be exceptions but we can formulate this general unsaid rule .

    Secondly there are cuttings : la Sécu, le bac, la clim, un pro(fessional), 5 heures du mat’, a lot actually and you may invent one but it will delay the answer for people will need a time of little surprise . What makes a cutting spread and stick is confusing to sort out, nobody in particular is responsible, it looks like a collective agreement like certain revolutionary sparks of the past . This is also true for what we could call amputations or disparitions : “à plus ” for à plus tard, “à toute” (final “t’ pronounced) for à tout à l’heure . A more thorough immersion in the language spoken or written around you teaches you quicker, you see . Now what I write is valid for France, things can be different in other Francophone environments .

    1. ‘Cutting’ is an interesting way of putting it — almost like a plant cutting that creates new roots and grows. How I wish I’d been able to find an explanation of some basic rules of thumb like this back in the day. It seems that where the spoken language is concerned, very few sources provide much guidance. Thanks a million for these always helpful explanations! P.S. I knew it was pronounced ‘à toute’ but didn’t think I was allowed to change the spelling, lol!

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