The French language is filled with pitfalls for the non-native speaker. I have personally fallen into so many of them I have permanent bruises on my tongue.
Okay, I exaggerate. But I have become rather good at rolling with the punches when I make a faux pas.
The wonderful thing about an acquired language is that you are allowed to make mistakes. Of course everyone can make mistakes, but it feels like we get a special pardon for bloopers and blunders in French.
One of the my frequent funnies is confusing words that look similar but have very different meanings.
- Culot / culotte
‘Avoir du culot’ or ‘être culotté’ means to have a lot of nerve. A culotte, on the other hand, describes a type of ladies’ undergarment. ‘Perdre sa culotte’ means to lose one’s shirt, for example in a game of poker. But to go ‘sans culotte’ may require a certain culot.
- Naturiste / naturaliste
You need a lot of culot to go to the plage naturiste (nudist beach). Unless you happen to stumble upon it in the way of a naturalist simply studying the fascinating wildlife. According to the French Naturist Federation, this country is the world’s leading destination for nudists.
- Gâteaux / gâteux
I love cake so this first word is a piece of it. For many years I was confused by the expression ‘Mamie gateaux’, which affectionately describes an over-indulgent grandmother, thinking it had something to do with the verb ‘gâter’ which means to spoil. A word of advice: don’t tell your mother-in-law she is gâteux – senile, doddering or incontinent.
- Jambe / jambon
My jambes (legs) may not be long and slender but they are not quite jambons (hams). Yet.
- Cochonnerie / connerie
Speaking of ham, why do we blame the poor pig for everything? A mere syllable separates the familiar expression for junk food (cochonnerie) from that which describes an act of stupidity (connerie). Do not use either expression when attempting to describe your child’s diet to a pediatrician.
- Piéton / pigeon
French drivers may not always distinguish between them, but pedestrians (piétons) are not pigeons. There are plenty of both on the streets of Paris so when in France it is best to watch where you put your pieds!
- Baisser / baiser
You may well lower (baisser) your eyes. A single ‘s’ is all that separates the act of lowering with a much lower act. Although ‘baiser’ has a place in the dictionary to officially mean kiss (baiser la main), in actual fact it is only ever used to mean to screw or get screwed.
We all know someone who says ‘prostrate’ instead of ‘prostate’. Do you ever mix up your meanings in English or any other language?
I used to think that a ‘faux pas’ (literally, a false step; figuratively, a blunder) was the same as ‘faut pas’ (as in ‘must not’ from the verb ‘falloir’). In the end I realized they are two sides of the same coin: in France, il ne faut pas faire des faux pas. Which hasn’t stopped me from making a considerable number of my own.
Il faut and il ne faut pas are among the most overused words in the French language, deserving of a dedicated post. As for the faux pas, I’ve decided to translate a few of my red-faced moments into a what-not-to-do list.
- Do not tell people you live on a ‘cul-de-sac’.
In English this may describe a highly desirable address; in French, the words have a different connotation, one that is closer to the dead end. (And by the way, in polite company it’s safer to avoid all phrases with the word ‘cul’).
- Do not ask for the maître d’
(or may-truh dee as we anglos pronounce it). You can try ‘maître d’hôtel’ but beware – this is rather posh in French and you may get laughed out of lower-end places.
- Do not order dry red wine
As a rule all French reds are dry. Note that the French generally refer to wine by regions, not cépages (the grape). If you’re in a wine bar you may be able to get away with ordering a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay – but this will blow your chances of passing for a local.
- Do not ask for ketchup
Unless you really want to prove the truth in the French preconceptions about les anglais (and especially les américains) Or possibly unless you order french fries. But if you want to go local, avoid the condiments completely. If you must, stick with Dijon.
- Don’t eat (or drink) at your desk
Meals are social occasions in France, at work as well as in personal life. Coffee is best enjoyed with your colleagues while catching up on the latest news – or ragots (gossip). Sure, you can take the occasional drink to your desk – even eat a sandwich there if there’s a work crunch – but don’t miss out on the many opportunities in French working life to show how well you’ve ‘integrated’ the team.
- Do not kiss strangers
I have nothing against romance, but the customary cheek kissing in France is dangerous ground for foreigners. As a rule, follow the lead of the French with les bises, and don’t kiss anyone unless they kiss you first.
- Don’t point when you want to cross
Nope. Not done in France, even at cross-walks. The cars will not stop anyway unless you’re already crossing. They will laugh, even honk, at how ridiculous you look while standing there pointing.
- Don’t ask, don’t tell
Avoid giving away too much information or asking too many questions. People here don’t want to hear your life story, and they don’t want to tell you theirs. The French reveal little about themselves to anyone who’s not close friends and family.
- Don’t swear or use slang
Remember when your parents said ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? This is kind of a double standard, especially coming from an admitted gutter mouth. But you have to be very fluent indeed to get away with curse words and use the local jargon in French. If you must use an expletive, the safest is probably merde.
- Don’t leave without saying goodbye
This presumes you should also say hello but it ain’t necessarily so. Somehow, while the French rarely introduce themselves and often neglect to say hello, to leave any shared space (whether an elevator or a shop) without saying a vague ‘au revoir’ is universally accepted as rude.
So there you have it, my tried-and-true list of easily avoidable French faux pas. Feel free to ignore and stumble on…or even better, please share any of your own!