Sunday, February 21, 2010


At this point in the year, I feel as though we can all officially call ourselves “bilingual.” We switch easily between French and English, not giving much thought to which language we’re using when we’re in the company of fellow bilinguals, but expressing ourselves effectively in both. Speaking English with fellow Smithies no longer feels like a huge relief, it just feels different from speaking French. Speaking French no longer feels like a chore, it’s now an excuse to try out that new expression that Fanny taught me or that new vocab word I just picked up.

Still, beings equally “à l’aise” in both French and English has provided for some interesting points of comparison between the two, especially in terms of words and phrases that exist in one language but lack a direct translation in the other. For example…


When I speak French, I sorely miss the following words:

* excited. We’ve all learned by now that “je suis excitée” does NOT equal “I am excited”… outside of the bedroom, that is. Still, the French do not have an equivalent. Sure, you can say “j’ai hâte de faire quelque chose” ... but the length of the phrase takes the punch and, well, the excitement out of it. And it doesn’t properly communicate the energy, enthusiasm, and pure jubilation that the word “excited” connotes. It’s just not the same.

* awkward. Does this word not exist in French because the French never feel “awkward” in social situations? I find this impossible to believe, especially considering the innumerable—and extremely subtle—unwritten rules of conduct, from who you can ‘tutoie’ to how many ‘bisous’ to give (or if you should just go for a handshake) … it just seems too easy to accidentally miss a cue and land yourself in a supremely awkward situation with someone. And I’m sorry, but “mal à l’aise” and “unconfortable” just don’t do the trick. They are NOT the same as “awkward.”

* snack. It’s pretty clear why this word doesn’t exist in French: The French don’t snack. But Americans do! I physically cannot go from lunch at 13h to dinner at 21h without eating at least ONE snack within that 8-hour period! Still, there’s nothing more difficult than trying to explain to my host mom in French what happened to the last “petit gateau,” which I munched on at around 17h. In English, it’s easy: “I ate it for snack.” Okay, fine. In French, not only do I have to explain that I ate it as a snack, but I have to spit out a lengthy explanation about what a snack is, and why it was even necessary in the first place.

[Another word that I miss, but not quite as much: lap. The French just say “genoux,” but that just doesn’t seem as warm and welcoming as “lap.” We actually have a special word set aside for where you can perch yourself on someone else, and the French should, too!]

Still, there are also plenty of French words that I miss when I speak in English. It’s more expressions, really…


* par gourmandise: I love this expression. And use it daily. It has no direct English translation, but as we know, you use this phrase when you are at a meal, you are stuffed to the brim, but you decide to take an extra helping of something simply because it is so delicious that you can’t resist. The fact that this expression exists in French means that the French themselves completely accept, and even promote, the practice of eating for the pure pleasure and joy of it, not just for the practical purpose of nourishment. I love it!

[Actually, just the word “gourmandise” in general, which translates to “a weakness for sweet things,” is pretty awesome, and needs to have an English equivalent.]

* Bon courage! Another expression I use on a regular basis. It has absolutely no English translation, but it’s something that you’d say right before someone heads off to take a tough test, or even just spend an afternoon exerting effort, like sitting through a 3-hour lecture on “melancholy in French literature” at the Sorbonne. It’s so much more than just “Good luck!” … it’s a vote of confidence, a wish for success, and an acknowledgement that the act about to be performed deserves some sort of recognition, even if it is something as mundane as going to class.

* Ennui. In English we have “boredom” and we have “angst,” but we don’t have a word that communicates the mental state of “ennui,” the pure anguish that comes from tedium. I definitely don’t need to use this word in everyday life, but when I’m reading French literature, the single word “ennui” contains so much, tells me so much about a given character, I feel bad for English-speaking authors because they are deprived of such a simple yet powerful noun and idea.

[In addition, when I speak in English, I miss saying “Tu m’étonnes!” a much more sincere, empathetic, and succinct version of “I hear ya” or “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from.” Also, “Bon appétit” is a great expression. But this one doesn’t really count because we just steal the French expression and use it as if it were English. And finally, I can’t help but miss using “on” as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in French. In English everyone just incorrectly uses “they” or snobbishly uses “one.”]

Basically, we should all just speak “franglais” and use the best words and expressions from the two languages. Think of how effectively we could express ourselves!


  1. I love this! It's so interesting and extremely well written!

  2. Alex! What a great topic to write on, this was so fascinating! Keep it up, write more please! :)