The Académie Française has been monitoring the French language for more than three and a half centuries. It regularly issues edicts on usage, vocabulary, and grammar, although its recommendations carry no legal power and are largely ignored. And the language continues to evolve in a process of linguistic natural selection.
If you seek a complete course in colloquial French, Le français familier et argotique (1997) by Pierre-Maurice Richard – presumably for Argonauts – comes highly recommended. Then there is Street French Slang Dictionary & Thesaurus by David Burke, containing over 1,000 expressions including a section signposted “danger”. And the best-selling Merde encore by Geneviève More is admirably subtitled “More of the real French you were never taught at school”.
Recently, The Local – France’s news in English – has been running a fascinating series on its web site dealing with new expressions in French and so-called “untranslatable” words and phrases. Among the neologisms is the verb escargoter translating literally as “to snail”. It means to tarry or to take undue time over something.
Another verb that has become a favourite in the land that invented haute couture is se mémériser, from the word “mémé” (granny) and meaning to dress like a grandmother. It’s probably an insult.
There is no single word for the verb “to procrastinate” in French, which is usually translated as “to put off until tomorrow”. But esquivarder is coming to the rescue. A combination of the verb “bavarder” (to chat) and “esquiver” (to avoid), it means to avoid a task by chatting too much. English speakers may hear an echo of “to skive”.
Then there are a number of odd expressions that cause translators to stumble.
L’ésprit d’escalier or staircase wit refers to the retort you think of too late. It recalls Versailles and 18th century French fops. Supposedly, the French philosopher Denis Diderot coined the phrase because he found that it was only by walking away from an argument, literally down the stairs, that he could he think of a suitable riposte.
Cartonner has the literal meaning of wrapping something in cardboard, but as a slang term it is used to mean something that is having a huge success: “le film cartonne aux États-unis.”
Ras-le-bol is used to express dissatisfaction, annoyance or frustration. The best English equivalents of “j’en ai ras le bol de…” are “I’ve had it up to here with…” or “I’ve had enough of…” It has been cropping up in the French press in relation to increased taxes: “Le ras-le-bol fiscal.”
Dépaysement describes the feeling of disorientation and bewilderment on being in a strange land or environment. It can also be used to describe an upsetting change of mental state. “Je me sens dépaysé” means “I feel like a fish out of water.”
Chanter en yaourt or yaourter literally means “to yoghurt” and is used for someone trying to sing in a foreign language and getting the words wrong or filling in missing words with tra-la-la and the like.
A l’ouest translated literally means “in the west”, but it’s also used to describe someone a little strange or different or who thinks outside the box. It might also be used for a daydreamer.
But beware. As Mark Twain noted in The Innocents Abroad (1869), “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”