Funny French Words and Phrases

There are words and phrases that sound funny in any language, and French is no exception. If you are learning French, it's useful to know some funny French phrases. Did I mention the group of students who laughed their pointy heads off at the word deuil as they were adjusting to producing its vowel sounds? In this case, their anglophone twist on the sounds of the word played a role in how funny it was to them, but there are also French words and phrases that are funny to any person uttering them, whether or not they are native speakers. Some words seem to be deliberately funny, while others have just turned out to be amusing.

8 Funny French Words

1) abracadabrantesque

Remember the word abracadabra? It is used as an incantation for  magic tricks and is spelled the same way in English and in French. In French there is a corresponding adjective, which means preposterous, exaggerated. Its definition in the Larousse appears as: “Qui suscite l'incrédulité par son caractère improbable ou incohérent : Une affirmation abracadabrantesque”. It’s good to have a six-syllable word for something so bombastic.

2) cerf-volant

This could be literally translated as “flying deer”, but is actually the translation for “kite”. I’m not sure if the form of many kites resembles deer, but perhaps the flighty movements of kites bring deer to mind.

3) pamplemousse

This is not mousse that you eat – pâté, chocolate mousse – but grapefruit. It seems odd that a fruit would have the name normally reserved for something prepared to have a smooth texture, but it is actually from the Dutch word pompelmoes – a big lemon – which explains the use of the word mousse in its French adaptation.

4) sardanapalesque

This is another adjective corresponding to a noun. The noun sardanapale has origins in the Latin word sardanapalus, which refers to a powerful man leading a luxurious life. The meanings somptueux, luxurieux, and princier doubtlessly draw from this image.

5) meugler

While the word moo in English seems more of an illustration of onomatopoeia, this French version involves a /g/ that seems a curious component of this sound made by a cow. But, having Latin roots in the verb mugilare, this is in fact the verb you would use to describe the sound a cow makes. You could say “Elle meugle” when referring to a cow, or “Meugles-tu ?” if you address a cow while petting it.  

6) vachement

Speaking of cows, when you wish to emphasize something in French, you can use this word, as in the following sentence: “Le TGV est vachement rapide !” The question is, why do we say “cowly” for emphasis?

7) yaourter

To yogurt? First of all, the sequence of sounds involved in this verb is interesting enough, with two vowel sounds in a row that are distinctly French, followed by the French r, and an -er ending from the 1er groupe. The word denotes trying to speak or sing and floundering, especially in a foreign language. A side note to this term is that the singer Seal wrote in the liner notes of his eponymous 1994 album that he didn’t include the lyrics to his songs with his CDs because he wanted to encourage people to respond to the sound and feel of the music. This was obviously before the explosion of the internet and he liked the idea of people relying on what came to their ears to interpret his songs. But was he a yogurt fan?

8) machin

This is a synonym for truc. The English versions, whaddyacallit or whatchamacallit, are much less economical. If you momentarily forget a word, don’t feel like saying it, or simply can’t be bothered, you can say things like: “On utilise ce machin pour nettoyer l’écran”. One French woman I met even feminized it when she couldn’t be bothered to come up with people’s names: “Ils veulent tous bavarder juste parce qu’un Monsieur Machin sort avec une Madame Machine...” We were all laughing by the time she was finished speaking.

There are words and phrases that sound funny in any language, and French is no exception.

Other Funny Phenomena in the French Lexicon

1) Words Ending in Three E's

words ending in three e’s such as the feminine past participle of the verbs créer, agréer, suppléer

Thus, we would write the following:

      J’adore les robes que Gaultier a créées.
     Les expressions agréées sont une forme de politesse.
     Il faut que ces tâches soient supléées par les ressources plus vastes.

2) Words that are Feminine in the Plural and Masculine in the Singular

After learning all about gender distinction in the French language, you will be thrilled to learn that the following nouns change genders, depending on whether there is one or more of them: amours, délices, orgues. Thus, we say amours enfantines, but amour éblouissant ; belles délices, but délice somptueux ; orgues mélodieuses, but grand orgue.

3) The Word Gens

Although only used in the plural form, this word resembles the preceding words in that it sometimes takes on a feminine role and sometimes takes on a masculine role. According to the Académie française, this is due to its feminine etymological background, coupled with its expression of an idea that is considered masculine. Generally, prenominal adjectives that have distinct feminine forms are used in the feminine along with gens, while adjectives that appear after the word are used in their masculine form, e.g., ce sont de petites gens ; parmi ces gens nombreux. The prenominal feminine adjectives that appear along with gens do not extend to other components of sentences in which they appear, with the exception of toutes and quelles when used alone or with feminine prenominal adjectives, e.g., ces vieilles gens sont heureux ; toutes bonnes gens ; quelles belles gens !  With other adjectives the masculine form is used, e.g., quels honnêtes gens ; tous les jeunes gens. Used with a complement introduced by de designating a quality, profession, or state, the preceding adjective will be masculine, e.g., tous gens de lettres ; les grands gens de bonne volonté.

4) où

There is one word in French that uses u with the accent grave – où. It is thus distinct from the conjunction ou. The letter u is more often seen with a circumflex or tréma, e.g., dû, capharnaüm.

Funny French Expressions

1) l’esprit de l’escalier

Do you ever find yourself coming up with the perfect comeback – ten minutes after your conversation ended? This is an example of l’esprit de l’escalier, which the twelve-year-old narrator of Muriel Barbery’s L’Élégance du hérisson describes when she talks about not finding the right réplique at the right moment, but after too much time has elapsed. Her BFF, however, comes up with snappy responses right away, which is something Barbery’s narrator admires about her.

2) chercher la petite bête

There are those who love to split hairs, fixating on the most minute details and losing sight of, or directing attention away from, the larger picture. There is a moment in Yasmina Reza’s play Art when one of the characters accuses his friend of doing this very thing during a heated discussion over the significance of a completely white and very expensive canvas. When one friend asks how white lines are visible on a white canvas, the other, who is incensed by the enormous cost of the painting which to him looms over all of its other characteristics, says: “Tu cherches tout de suite la petite bête. Tu ne me laisses pas finir !”

3) il y a quelque chose qui cloche

This expression conveys the idea of something being wrong, seeming incongruous, not sitting right. The idea of incongruity is present in the phrase from Michel de Montaigne’s essay De l’expérience, “tout exemple cloche”, which he uses to illustrate the singularity of a particular example, its uniqueness, even in its position as part of a larger category.

4) un froid de canard

This phrase is particularly useful in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere at the moment, at it indicates an intense cold. The image comes from the hunting of ducks, who glide in and out of water easily, but not when it is frozen over, making them easier targets for hunters during colder periods. Speaking of fowl, how about this anecdote: “C’est une poule et un canard ; la poule dit au canard: il fait un froid de canard ; le canard dit à la poule : j’ai la chair de poule”.


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