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Untranslatable French words that have no English equivalent

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

The following is a list of 17 often-used French terms that do not have an equivalent in the English language; yet, understanding these words will assist you in adjusting to the nation and its culture.

There are certain terms in every language that just do not have an equivalent in the English language. Because they often serve to define aspects of a culture, these words are among the most intriguing in the language. These French phrases not only talk of sentiments and how French people express their feelings, but they also speak of certain practices and habits that are common in France and even France's etiquette. A number of them also shed light on the legendary sense of humor that the French possess.


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Sortable is an adjective that is often used in a pejorative sense (in the form "pas sortable") to characterize members of one's family or circle of acquaintances that one cannot bring up in public without feeling embarrassed. Since sortir means "to go" or "to take out," the neologism "sortable" literally means "something you can take out," yet this is a rather difficult translation.

People who engage in "pas sortable" behaviors include grandfathers who tell racially insensitive jokes in a low-key manner, buddies who crab-walk after having one too many drinks, and youngsters who utilize restaurant fixtures as monkey bars.


It is a lot more nuanced than that; literally, anything that "prevents you" from doing something. Google will tell you that this untranslatable French term means impediment, but it is much more than that. If you have an empêchement, you have a perfectly acceptable cause to apologize for being late or even cancel your arrangements. You just had an "unexpected last-minute change of plans," so there's no need to hustle to come up with a particular reason for your absence.


The sensation of being out of one's native environment, known as dépaysement, or more colloquially as "un-country-ing," refers to the strangeness and confusion that one experiences being in a setting that is not their native one. On the other hand, this does not have the same negative connotations as homesickness or cultural shock.

The term "dépaysement" is often used to refer to the exhilarating experience of finding new frontiers, including new people, languages, and cuisines. When traveling to other countries for vacation, French people look forward to experiencing this particular aspect of the culture.

L'esprit d'escalier

You find that you are unable to think of the ideal clever response at the moment, but that it comes to you three hours later, often when you are in the shower? The term "staircase wit" was coined to describe this unpleasant mentality. Diderot, a French philosopher who lived in the 18th century, is credited with coining the phrase after realizing that he could only think of appropriate retorts after walking away from a debate, or more specifically while going down the stairs.


Do you go about your day dragging yourself along with a pervasive sense of depression, unhappiness, and discouragement? You have possession of the spleen. This phrase was first developed by the French poet Baudelaire, and it was derived from the English word for the instrument itself. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, proposed that our emotions are connected to the body's humor and fluids that originate in our spleens. Hippocrates's theory has stood the test of time.

L'appel du vide

The irresistible desire to free fall from great heights is referred to as "the cry of the void." It is also possible to apply it in a broader sense to encompass all of the other sinister impulses that go through our brains, such as "what if I drove into oncoming traffic?" What would happen if I leapt from the platform of the subway? What if I put my hand in here and it got all blended up?

It is fascinating to learn that the scientific community believes these impulses to be the exact opposite of what they seem to be. They are not motivated by a want to suffer or perish in any way. Instead, they are an assertion of the will that we have to continue living. In a nutshell, the occasional occurrence of l'appel du vide, which affects almost half of the population, serves to terrify us into being more careful.

La douleur exquise

The French certainly live up to their reputation as being masters of romance and tragedy, and they have a unique word to convey feelings of love that is unrequited. However, one does not need to be French or even a drama queen to comprehend the specific anguish being described.

La douleur exquise is something you've probably experienced if you've also done things like spent hours looking out the window while listening to sorrowful music and delighting in the anguish that your devotion isn't reciprocated. Because let's be honest: even if experiencing a broken heart is excruciatingly painful, doesn't it also make you feel extraordinarily alive?


Once you learn it, voilà will quickly become one of your favorite and most useful French terms. It has a wide range of applications and may mean anything from "here it is" to "finally" depending on the context in which it is used. For instance, when something that has been anticipated for a long time finally occurs: Voilà, enfin! Alternatively, after you have finished a task, you might say "Ah, voilà." Or even when you give something to someone else and say, "Tiens, voilà!"


Flaner is the practice of aimlessly meandering around the streets of a city with no particular objective or endpoint in mind, only for the enjoyment of taking in the surrounding environment. It is entrenched in French culture to take pleasure in the present moment for its own sake, without having any other objective in mind.

In the same way that the French may spend hours talking away at the dinner table, they will find happiness in wandering around a flea market, appreciating products, and interacting with other people who are walking by. Another well-liked activity in France is known as le lèche-vitrines, which is often referred to as Flaner's younger sister.


Some individuals despise going shopping, so instead, they will just shop at the one store that has all of the items they need. On the other side, the French are notorious for "window-licking" for long periods. They may not even be searching for a particular item, and they might not even be purchasing anything at all! However, they will enjoy "flaner" while admiring the items displayed in the store windows. Perhaps they will get ideas from these displays, or they may just find it enjoyable to gaze at beautiful things.


The literal translation of the French verb profiter is "to take advantage," but its true meaning is more closely related to the English word "enjoy." Like that of flaner and lèche-vitrines, it also transmits the French art of just being present in the moment. You might make the most of the opportunity to spend time with a person who is important to you, or you can take advantage of the fact that you are going to be near a bakery that sells excellent croissants. Imagine yourself sitting on a sunny café terrace, sipping a glass of wine, and watching the world go by as you watch others go about their day. This is one way the term may be used on its own. What are you doing at the moment? "Je profite!"


The act of ultimately reuniting with a dearly departed loved one after a period of separation is known as retrouvailles.

A term in French that has no direct equivalent in English but that all of us can connect to, particularly now that the height of the COVID-19 epidemic has passed, it evokes heartwarming images of happiness, tenderness, and enthusiastic embraces. Reconciliations are usually referred to in the plural form, retrouvailles.


The phrase "dumb individuals were probably dumped on their heads as babies" is a common one in the English language. T'es tombé sur la tête? is a question that will be asked of you in French if you are behaving irrationally and others will wonder whether you have hit your head.

To take this one step further, there is even a French term that cannot be translated into English that is used to describe persons who are behaving unpredictably. This word is frappadingue. This new word is a combination of the French verb frapper, which means "to hit," and the Spanish word dingue (crazy). Even though the French are recognized for being able to take a joke and roll with it, this is not a very nice way to speak to someone, even if it is not technically an insult.


The fact that this humorous phrase may also be used to refer to insane persons suggests that France is home to a diverse population of the mentally ill. However, it has a milder sense than frappadingue. It is most often used to describe a peculiar person, an eccentric person, or a scatterbrained individual. Native English speakers, who already have a difficult time pronouncing the French u, have an especially difficult time with this term because of its notoriously poor friendliness.


If you ever find yourself at the bargain emporium Tati on the day that they put their affordable wedding gowns on sale, you will fully get the meaning of the phrase "Quel tohu-bohu!" (which translates to "Quel tohu-bohu! "). This amusing-sounding French term describes situations in which there is a lot of noise and agitation. Imagine the pit at a rock performance or the crowd during a rally in the street (which the French are famous for). The tohu-bohu thrives on the din and anarchy that it creates.

It's interesting to learn that this difficult French phrase comes from biblical Hebrew, but there you are. Tohu-wa-bohu is a representation of the shapeless condition in which the world existed before the creation of light.


People who "didn't inhale" are a popular target of ridicule in the United States, to the point that the French coined a phrase to describe those who do so. To a considerable extent, to put the pretenders to disgrace.

The act of smoking a cigarette (or other substance) without taking a breath while doing so is referred to as crapoting, which is a verb. Teenagers take great delight in making fun of their peers who inhale smoke via their mouths rather than their lungs by saying things like "Haha, tu crapotes!"


We've kept the most crucial term in French that just cannot be translated for last. Considering that this is a national hobby, Raler isn't very upset about it. It is not a loud sound, nor is it a whining sound, nor is it a noisy sound. It is more of a way that the French consistently show their continual discontent with the world. There is no level of hardship that is deemed low enough to justify refraining from raler; in fact, the French even do it on their own at home. For training, just enhance whatever it is that you want to mutter under your breath by adding a few decibels and some cuss words.


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