By The Local
All language learners have mispronounced something at some point, leaving the French person they are talking to either confused or helpless with laughter.
But there are certain French words that sound very similar to another word or phrase that gives a totally different meaning. Mixing these up could potentially land you in hot water, so here are some tips on words to pay particular attention to the pronunciation of.
Is it your cou or your cul that is sore?
These three look very different on paper but when spoken sound virtually identical. All refer to parts of the body, but very different ones. Le cou is the neck, while la queue has a literal meaning of tail, but is also used as a slang term for penis.
And cul is a slang term for bottom so arse or ass.
So while telling a colleague that J’ai mal au cou (I have a sore neck) is perfectly acceptable office chat, telling them J’ai mal à la queue (I have a sore dick) or j’ai mal au cul is likely to get you at best an odd look and at worst a complaint to HR.
Unhelpfully both cou and cul are masculine while penis here is feminine (look we never said French made sense, OK?) so paying careful attention to the pronouns will help a bit.
If you want a substitute slang for penis French, like most languages, is tripping over them – try bite or zizi. And a more polite term for bottom would be la fesse.
Check out a pronunciation guide here.
2. Baisser/baiser/un baiser
Another classic that frequently trips up French learners is these very similar sounding words.
The perfectly innocuous verb baisser means to lower and is frequently heard in businesses discussions – Je pense que nous devrions baisser nos prix (I think we should lower our prices) or news reports – Le gouvernement espère que ces mesures fera baisser le prix de l’essence (the government hopes these measures will lower the price of petrol).
The verb baiser on the other hand is a crude way of talking about sex – it’s usually translated as to fuck or to screw.
Just be careful if you are asking someone at work to lower their voice: Baisse ta voix
There’s a guide on pronunciation here.
And frighteningly similar is the noun un baiser – a kiss (or perhaps a snog or making out, it generally means a kiss within a sexual context). So great is the potential for mortification when mixing up these two that more paranoid souls have been heard to suggest that the French are doing it on purpose to laugh at foreigners.
The key is remembering that one is a noun and the other a verb, so if you are talking about a kiss, there will always be an article – un, le, du – in front of it, while baiser is a verb so will need conjugating when you are using it in a sentence.
You will also hear bisous which means kisses and is sometimes used as a very informal farewell or sign-off, while the verb to kiss is the distinctly less problematic embrasser.
If you’d rather not take the risk, you can often substitute baisser with réduire (to reduce) while if you must brag about your sexual conquests, niquer has roughly the same meaning as baiser. Or you could just use faire l’amour or one of the many examples from the link below.
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr
One of these options tells a person you are pleased to see them, the other is calling them a bastard – pick your word with care.
Salut is a cheery and informal greeting, while salaud is a term of abuse that has roughly the same meaning as bastard in English. The word salaud is only used for men, for women you use salope, which is much less likely to get mixed up with anything else.
If you want to avoid them altogether you can use ça va? as an informal greeting or even coucou although there is some passionate debate this one.
If you want a person to be absolutely clear that they are being insulted and not greeted you could call them a connard (or connasse if they are a woman) which is usually translated as dickhead in English.
Although in certain circumstances, connard can cause problems of its own, sounding as it does similar to the French word for duck.
Un canard is a duck, a common sight on French menus, particularly in the south of the country. Un connard, as discussed above, is not something you want to call the waiter, unless you like the thought of someone spitting in your food.
Is this a duck or a dickhead? Photo: AFP
5. Con/quand (and don’t forget Caen)
Again these look different but sound very similar, and one of them is insulting.
Un con is an idiot or a fool, as seen in the title of the famous French farce Le Dîner de cons, where the plot revolves around people inviting unwitting idiots round for dinner. The word was also memorably used by former French president Nicolas Sakozy, who rather lost it one day on the campaign trail and told a member of the public Casse-toi, pauvre con (get lost, you bloody idiot).
Quand, on the other hand, is a perfectly innocuous word meaning when, as in Quand nous reverrons-nous demain? When shall we meet up tomorrow?
And Caen is of course a town in Normandy.
Particularly important if you’re involved in any kind of diplomacy this one, but don’t get the words for railway station and war confused.
La gare is the station, so ask someone où se trouve la gare? and you’re asking for directions. Ask them Où se trouve la guerre? however, and you’re asking where the war is, which is likely to earn you either a baffled look or a discussion about the conflict in Syria, depending on who you are talking to.
Local reader Claire Koberman said: “When asking a gentleman where the train station was, he politely informed me that the war had ended in 1945. La gare n’est pas la guerre.”
Less potential for embarrassment or sparking diplomatic incidents here, fortunately, but plenty of room for all round confusion with these four virtually identical sounding words.
Une fois means a time or an occasion, such as C’est la première fois que vous venez en France? Is this your first time in France? Or perhaps Tu fais ça à chaque fois! You do that every time!
Le foie means the liver, most famously in delicious delicacy/cruel abomination foie gras, which is made from the liver of geese. It also works for a human liver, so you could tell the doctor J’ai mal au foie (I have pain in my liver) if you’ve slightly overdone the wine.
Froid or froide means cold, so you could discuss the weather Il fait froid aujourd’hui, non? Isn’t it cold today? or request Une boisson froide, s’il vous plaît (a cold drink please).
And finally la foire is an alternative word for a festival or a fair, so you can ask Où est la foire de la figue? if you’re trying to find your local fig festival.
Some testicles with your drink, sir? Photo: AFP
If you’re out for dinner somewhere fancy and are ordering drinks, make sure you don’t accidentally asks for yours with balls.
Les bulles means the bubbles, so if you want a fizzy drink that would be avec bulles.
Except that les boules means balls – most famously in the French game also known as pétanque, but also in the sense of a slang term for testicles.
To be on the safe side, stick to the foolproof d’eau gazeuse if you’re ordering sparkling water.
And sometimes, just sometimes, the French will change a word to avoid confusion – but only if you’re a tremendously powerful world leader.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been the beneficiary of this, as his name sounds similar to a common French swearword.
Putain is a fabulously versatile French swearword that is most commonly translated into English as fuck. As in Putain de connard, tu as failli me frapper! (You fucking asshole, you nearly hit me) which you might find handy to yell at people riding scooters on the pavement.
And as Vlad has the kind of reputation that suggests that swearing at him is not wise, the French have opted to change his name and refer to him as Poutine. In Canada a poutine is a popular and delicious snack involving chips, cheese and gravy, but it’s probably still better than accidentally swearing at the strongman of the Kremlin.