French is known as a “poetic” language, but what does that really mean? It might be that the French are genius at coming up with words for concepts that all humans understand, but most cultures never think to put a name to.
In that spirit, here are 12 French terms without an easy English translation—because as any good poet knows, you don’t use a whole sentence when a single word will suffice.
1. Bon vivant
Best translation: Someone who really knows how to live
This is the person who likes good food and good wine and being surrounded by fun and laughter. And, yes, you’re always trying to get an invite to their party in Provence.
Best translation: At someone’s place
Chez Jacques, Chez Pierre: There’s a reason so many French restaurants use this hospitable preposition. This single word means to be both at that person’s place and in the company of that person.
Best translation: Having well styled hair
We all envy the French for their seemingly effortless, yet always perfectly styled tresses, which is probably why they have a word that simply means existing in a state of good hair.
4. Coup de—
Best translation: Struck by something
It’s the moment when something hits you, and there are many ways to be struck, including: coup de coeur (by an obsession); coup d’état (by a government takeover); coup de foudre (by love at first sight).
Best translation: Out of sorts when away from home
Often mistranslated as “homesickness,” this word is more about the disorientation and lack of familiarity you experience outside your normal surroundings. Basically, travel brain.
Best translation: To wander aimlessly around a city
This verb evokes the sense of pleasure to be had in discovering a place by roaming around it with no purpose or direction in mind. Go with the flow, tout le monde!
7. Jolie Laide
Best translation: An unconventional beauty
It’s literal translation is “pretty ugly,” but it refers to a person who isn’t traditionally beautiful, yet has undeniable appeal (i.e. a certain je ne sais quoi!).
Best translation: Mutual rediscovery
This is used when you meet a friend after a long absence. But its further connotation of “finding each other again” is where the translation “reunion” falls short poetically.
Best translation: To “get” one another
Literally, it means to listen to one another, but figuratively this verb refers to the unspoken bond you have with someone you really connect with.
Best translation: Take-out-able
You’d call someone this if they’re a friend (or more likely a family member) that you’re not embarrassed to be seen in public with. Are your dad’s jokes cringey? Use the inverse: insortable.
Best translation: The flavor of the land
Most often used in wine-speak, this concept describes how environmental factors like the soil, water, air and climate of a place influence the taste of things grown there. Mmmm, am I picking up some bedrock?
Best translation: There it is
The problem with “there it is” as a translation for this French adverb is that it has no panache. Saying “voilà,” practically demands an exclamation point—especially when it falls at the end of a list of fabulous French words with no translation. Et voilà!
Want to start speaking the language of love? EF offers a multitude of study-abroad courses in France, lasting anywhere from two weeks to a year.