N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?


  1. margaret21 · November 28, 2019

    Yes, plenty. Such a useful phrase! But one thing we can’t bring ourselves to do is shop at Amazon, having seen what staff conditions are there, and the harm they do to independent traders. Seeing Sorry We Missed You only increased that resolve. But what to do? Even if we confine ourselves to ‘real shops’, I imagine that their delivery staff are subject to the same horrors. It’s really hard to know what’s best. C’est du n’importe quoi.

    • MELewis · November 28, 2019

      Point well taken and seeing that film drove it home. However, I was an early adopter of online shopping and Amazon which totally transformed my experience living far from shops and services in France. I do believe they have to change though, and hope that consumer awareness and better oversight will help bring it about. The whole ‘gig’ economy model needs to be made fair for both workers and those they serve.

      • margaret21 · November 28, 2019

        Indeed. I’ve never been good at online shopping. It-doesn’t-fit-it’s-not-what-I-expected-I-can’t-make-it-work. That sort of thing. So I make a virtue of shopping local with independent traders. In your shoes, I’m sure I’d do as you do.

  2. phildange · November 28, 2019

    So this is a post about peanut butter isn’it ? Good title, I have long suspected that peanut butter was vraiment n’importe quoi !
    Oh, our today’s oral trick : the infamous verlan operated over our old “n’importe quoi”, and now it’s quite frequent to hear instead “Porte nawak” . Although not purely technically correct as a verlan transformation this sound pleases my ear in its Carribean suggesting feeling and I use it commonly . Listen, and if you sometimes meet under 60 y/o people you’ll hear it .

    • MELewis · November 28, 2019

      I do love ‘Porte Nawak’ and will use it as a sort of code for the everyday craziness I see around me. As for peanut butter, I am afraid that we will simply have to differ. I have every nut known to man in my pantry and the delicious spread is just another staple that makes life (and breakfast) bearable. 😅

  3. francetaste · November 28, 2019

    Phildange is always so interesting. I will try to use porte nawak today.
    In Kenya, people had a similar term: anyhowly, meaning in a chaotic, disorderly manner. Example: “The package was delivered anyhowly.” I loved it and used it often. (The students are running about anyhowly!)
    I am sticking to brick and mortar stores. Increasingly, they will order whatever you need and you can avoid Amazon. I go to the bookstore to order books in English that they don’t carry, for example. Amazon is a real monster and won’t get a centime from me.

    • phildange · November 28, 2019

      Thank you lady but take care of pronouncing it “port’ nawak”, sounding T and mute E . That’s how it’s said, in 3 syllables .

      • MELewis · November 28, 2019

        Thanks, Phil, I was wondering how to pronounce it. 😀

    • MELewis · November 28, 2019

      I hear you ‘anyhowly’, even if I detest brick and mortar stores and consider online shopping to be a huge technological step forward. The people part of the system is currently not caught up though and this must happen to protect workers’ rights as well as create eco-friendly solutions around deliveries. I don’t see Amazon as a monster, just (another) out-of-control profit-driven business that needs to be reigned in.

      • francetaste · November 28, 2019

        Too, too big. Any good idea, it either acquires or copies. I’m not against ordering online from small companies.

  4. paul · November 28, 2019

    i must say I have never heard my wife use”n’importe quoi”. French is her first language but I think by living in London she does not pick up the phrases in fashion but she gables to her sisters in French all the time on the phone and its so fast that i miss most of it anyway. so perhaps i am not really sure:-)
    However I must agree with you that the delivery firms are rubbish . It came to a head last Christmas when she ordered 4 bottles of champagne and the delivery man left them on the doorstep for everybody passing our house to see any anybody to walk off with ! Fortunately nobody did so the delivery firm never even replied to our complaint. “Out of control” ? Definitely

    • MELewis · November 28, 2019

      Thank goodness you live in a good neighbourhood! It’s true that French is often spoken so quickly and run together that it’s hard to follow, but maybe your wife talks about happier topics with her sisters!

  5. Joanne Sisco · January 1, 2020

    I always enjoy these French lessons. Now I shall have to look for reasons to throw-around ‘n’import quoi’ at every opportunity 😉

    How was your Canadian Christmas?! I hope it was lovely 🙂

    Happy New Year!

    • MELewis · January 7, 2020

      Thanks, Joanne! Happy new year to you, too. We are just back from Christmas in Canada and I’m slowly getting caught up. Will hopefully be back with more funny Frenchisms soon!

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