Avoir du pif

Alas, I do not have a French nose. More Churchill than De Gaulle, it remains too round and stubby to be considered at all Gallic. Yet over the years I have acquired a little bit of a French nose in the sixth-sense department.

‘Avoir du nez’ or ‘avoir le nez fin’ describes the ability to suss something out intuitively, to feel it in the air. Other variations include ‘avoir du flair’, referencing the hunting dog’s ability to pick up on a scent. And my favourite, ‘avoir du pif’ — ‘pif’ being colloquial French for the sniffer.

Gégé – Gérard Depardieu

The nose is everything that defines the French: fine wine, perfume, flavour and taste. And yet, le nez is not, in my view, the most attractive part of the French anatomy. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat overdeveloped.

I’m going to go out on a limb (if not a long nose) here and say it: the French, as classically beautiful as so many are, do not have discreet noses. Could this be that the appendage has grown in size along with its importance in French life?

Serge Gainsbourg

This instinct of ‘smelling’ someone also seems to explain the curious way that French people have of sometimes taking an instant dislike to each other. There is even an expression to describe this: Je ne peux pas le sentir. Literally, I can’t ‘smell’ him, used to describe someone you can’t stand. Another variant is: Je ne peux pas le voir. So when you can’t smell someone, it becomes an affair for all the senses, meaning you can’t see them either. When this is the case, the individuals in question (experience shows that this feeling is always mutual), are able to circulate within the same space as if literally blind to one another.

Pierre Niney

I’ve been rewatching Season 4 of the cult series Call My Agent (‘Dix pour cent’ or 10% en francais) since it reappeared on Netflix. The show is a study in interpersonal relationships in French life, with all the star cameos as a bonus. The relationships between the characters in the show are bang on — so true to the way I’ve observed French people behave throughout my years in the country. Toute l’amérique has recently woke to brilliance of this series, as detailed in this article in Vanity Fair. Not coincidentally, a few of the actors are blessed with excellent examples of le French nez (in every sense of the word).

Laure Calamy

On the other hand, I have become entirely allergic to nose jobs. Just as there is nothing more beautiful than a face that entirely assumes the magnificence of its pif, there is little sadder than she who has felt the need to doctor it. You can always tell: the mouth is too wide, the eyes too far apart for the tiny perfect nose sculpted by the surgeon’s knife. I see them everywhere on American screens, and British ones too. In France this is, happily, less prevalent.

Camille Cottin

Among all these famous French noses…whose do you prefer? Or is there anybody (and their nose) that you absolutely can’t ‘smell’?


  1. Elyse Brady · January 28, 2021

    MEL. This is hysterical, especially for those of us with prize sniffers. Le Nez of Barbra Streisand has to be my fave, of course. Thanks for the appendage affirmation!! Love you! Elyse

    • MELewis · January 28, 2021

      Always happy to make you smile, Elyse! Even more magnificent that your olfactory appendage is that smile! 😁

  2. Dale · January 28, 2021

    I love these expressions. We use them here in Quebec, too. Avoir du pif et ne pas pouvoir sentir quelqu’un especially.
    And now that you mention it… they are rather “nosey” the French, aren’t they? 🙂
    As for nose jobs… boy are you right. I can’t help but think of Jennifer Grey who became completely unnoticeable once she had her schnoz done…

    • MELewis · January 28, 2021

      I had to google her to see what you meant – what a shame! As for another Jen, I always suspected Jennifer Aniston of having a nose job. Apparently she’ll only admit to having surgery for a deviated septum but when you compare pictures of her back in the early days with her currrent nez, it’s definitely smaller now. As for the French turns of phrase, I guess relying on their ‘pif’ is an international thing for the Latin bloods! 😀

      • Dale · January 28, 2021

        She is unrecognisable with the different nose, isn’t she? She has such a distinct look. Now? Not so much.
        As for Aniston, I admit to not paying attention!

      • MELewis · January 28, 2021

        Bravo! Many more worthy of our attention…😏

      • Dale · January 28, 2021


  3. phildange · January 28, 2021

    Nice incursion into French spirit, I like it . Actually, the fact that the verbs “to feel” and to “smell” are the same one verb in French, “sentir”, gives a lot to think about this national spirit . It gave a lot to my reflection at least .

    You’re right : “Je ne peux pas le sentir” and “Je ne peux pas le voir” are synonyms to say “I can’t stand him” . And to mean people who don’t get along we use ” Ils ne s’entendent pas” . All the senses work together .

    As a goodbye, a very old musicians joke we had here :”Do you know that Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder “ils ne peuvent pas se voir?!”

    • MELewis · February 2, 2021

      Good point about feeling and smelling being the same verb. It says a lot about the culture behind the language. And I just thought of another use of ‘pif’ — faire quelque chose au pif, meaning to do it by feeling rather than following rules. Also quintessentially French, I think.
      As for the joke…😂😂

  4. phildange · January 28, 2021

    Another use of “pif” is slang for a strong red wine . “Un verre de pif, une bouteille de pif” . You did not know this one but you poor Canuck are pardonable : we have dozens of slang terms for wine …

    • MELewis · January 28, 2021

      Yet another reason to like it! 🍷

  5. Alison · January 29, 2021

    Bonjour! I recently found your blog when I was looking up the French equivalent for an English expression (I can’t remember what it was anymore) for a translation, and I just want to let you know how much I’m enjoying your writing. Plus you live in Switzerland now! My daughter has lived there for three years and loves it, and I visited her in 2019 and also fell in love with it.

    Anyway, I lived in France for quite some years, but am back in the States at the moment. Dreaming about returning to Europe eventually, though!

    • MELewis · January 29, 2021

      Hi there Alison! Glad you enjoy the blog. You may find interesting to read some of the earlier posts more on the language and culture difference: Speak French in sign language, Parlez-vous Franglais… There’s a lot to love about Switzerland. Hope you can make it back again soon!

      • MELewis · January 29, 2021

        Oops, just re-read your comment and noticed that you said you lived in France for many years and work on translations….so you won’t need those earlier posts! 😁

      • Alison · January 29, 2021

        Oui, je rêve de retourner en Suisse ! Stupid pandemic! Perhaps a trip will be possible in the latter part of this year. In the meantime, I will live vicariously through my daughter…and you. 🙂

  6. Garfield Hug · January 29, 2021

    Great “nose” piece! I had a good laugh reading this! 🙂

    • MELewis · January 29, 2021

      Glad it tickled your nose bone!

  7. acflory · January 29, 2021

    I hope I’m not booed out of town for this but…I’ve never thought French men were particularly handsome. But…they are kind of sexy, and I think that has more to do with their vocal cords than their pif. 🙂

    • phildange · January 29, 2021

      Booooo !!! Hey, you don’t know my gang …

      • acflory · January 29, 2021

        lol – I’ll go quietly!

      • MELewis · January 31, 2021

        Vive le coq Gaulois! 🇫🇷👨🏻‍🎨😅

    • MELewis · January 31, 2021

      Honestly I never really thought of myself as being attracted by the ‘Latin lover’ type either. i guess my guy just ‘smelled’ right! 😅

      • acflory · January 31, 2021

        lmao! Pheromones…gotta love ’em!

  8. Colin Bisset · January 30, 2021

    A French friend was always saying to me that she ‘didn’t smell him right’ which amused me. A bit like a feeling in the pit of the stomach, I suppose… Perhaps being being blessed with a conk makes me like French actors all the more, recognising them as ‘my people’… But then, Camille Cottin can do no wrong.

    • MELewis · January 31, 2021

      Totally! Always go with your gut…and she is just perfect. 😍

  9. Ally Bean · January 31, 2021

    I like that saying, it is so subtle yet does get the point across. Thanks for sharing it here, I shall try to use it today in a sentence. Shouldn’t be too difficult for me to refer to someone who I can’t smell!

    • MELewis · January 31, 2021

      Ha, ha…which is why post-Covid, grateful that I finally got my sense of smell fully back!

  10. Pingback: Je t’aime moi non plus | FranceSays

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