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Untranslatable French

When learning a foreign language, there comes a fluency tipping point where you suddenly stop mentally translating words from your native tongue and just use the foreign word instead.  For an English speaker, “a fork is a fork”; for a French speaker “une fourchette est une fourchette”.  When I am having a conversation in French (or am just in a groovy French-feeling mood), if you show me a cup of coffee, I’ll immediately think of “un café” without any hesitation, because that’s simply what the object is once you have truly acquired fluency in another language. 

This is around the time when you start to think and dream in that language as well, which is actually a pretty strange experience in itself, especially the first few times you catch yourself accidentally mumbling French words as you reflect on daily events!  Stopping the mental translation opens marvelous doors of understanding and insights into how other people truly feel and think in their native tongues.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that you can never truly understand a foreign culture unless you also speak their language to the point where you naturally think in it.

French is an incredibly beautiful, rich language and there are some key words and concepts that are completely untranslatable into English.  This post is to share some of these special words and try to catch a few fleeting insights into the French psyche.

Too Much of a Good Thing...

La Gourmandise - Many of my American friends find it very difficult to resist a homemade French pastry.  They may be surprised to find that there is a concept in French known as “la gourmandise” describing this sensation, representing an overwhelming feeling of desire, lust and excess, such as “ok, my stomach is about to burst and I really shouldn’t keep eating, but that cake is just a pure slice of unctuous chocolate covered in an overflowing raspberry topping with the plate decorated in little zests of orange peels… I really shouldn’t…. maybe just a bite…. oh my God! … ok stop me now… too late!”.  Considering all of the incredible dishes served in France, anyone living here an extended amount of time has experienced “la gourmandise” on many different occasions.  Although the word usually refers to food delicacies, it can also be used metaphorically for just about anything you can do that goes over the top of “reasonable” excess (I’ll leave you to imagine different situations where “gourmandise” can be applied…).

Le Terroir - Historically, France has always been an agricultural nation and was a latecomer to the industrial revolution.  The French love of land, roots, traditions (especially culinary ones) and wisdom handed down from generations all melded together represents the concept of “le terroir”.  The term is extremely difficult to describe, but it is almost always linked to something that originates from manual toil of the local natural environment (usually harvested from the land), which is then refined into a product of incredible quality imbibed with a love of tradition, that can only be experienced and never fully defined.  So the next time you purchase some home-bottled wine and savory culinary specialties with the label “produit du terroir”, try to think about the generations of tradition and history that went into making this memorable delicacy and appreciate every last drop.

"Produits du Terroir" or Just Cheese?

"Produits du Terroir" or Just Cheese?

One more thing - “le terroir” should definitely not be confused with “La Terreur” (Reign of Terror), which was an extremely bloody time of the French Revolution when the guillotine was running non-stop, chopping off the heads of all enemies of the people (so be careful of spelling and pronunciation).

Coquine or Just Cleaning the House?

Coquine or Just Cleaning the House?

Coquin / Coquine - This is one of my favorite French adjectives/nouns because it is incredibly subtle and can get you into big trouble if you use it incorrectly!  When used with very young children “c’est un coquin” (this boy is a “coquin”) is an expression meaning that “he’s a very clever child that uses unexpected ruses and seductive charm to get attention”.  It’s kind of a half compliment because the kid usually manages to circumvent adult authority by doing something very cute to get his way…   When this adjective is used for adults, it is a reference to someone who emanates an aggressive, outgoing sexuality, but in a coy, seductive sort of way.  Remember that if your French girlfriend is wearing a sexy dress and you are meeting her parents for the first time, “elle est vraiment coquine, ta fille” (your daughter is really “coquine”) is not a phrase to say.  So as I said before, be very careful how you use this one!!

Dépayser (adjective/verb) - The other day I was having a conversation in English with a friend and I was trying to describe visiting a French mountain village and the concept of feeling completely disconnected from your usual urban surroundings.  Well, after stuttering a bit, I regressed into franglais and slipped in the French adjective “dépaysé”, which basically sums up the sensation of complete disorientation from your usual daily environment that I was trying to describe.  It’s a very good adjective for all of us French expats who wake up every day deep in the heart of France and are still amazed by the differences with our native homelands.

Although this post might point you in the right direction, to truly appreciate the full meaning of these words you’ll need to immerse yourself in the language until you finally start dreaming of “les gourmandises du terroir” or a very “coquine” French maid…  bonne nuit!


To better understand “le terroir”, take a look at the photos from another age on the site of photographer Patrick Blan.  My mouth is already watering…

You can also order “produits du terroir” online from a handy-dandy website

If you’re a chocolate addict, check out this video of a French chef making a warm, oozing “fondant au chocolat”.  Not as hard as you think!

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube DirektFondant au Chocolat

Feel free to add other nontranslatable words to the comments section!!

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