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The 10 Most Useful Untranslatable French Words

Have you ever had a strange déjà-vu on a rendez-vous with your fiancé? Was it a souvenir or a mirage? Am I using too many French-English words right now? Touché!

While some of these words only made it to the English language because they sound so chic, some words such as Déjà-vu or Mirage have a very specific meaning and can’t be replaced with just one word.

The French language contains many words and expressions that simply cannot be translated without using a complicated sentence. These are French words with no English equivalent. Exploring these words is a fantastic dive into the French culture and learning them will make you sound much more fluent, as only locals usually dare using them! They also may make conversations and foreign programs easier to understand.

I have seen many similar articles repeating the same literary oddities or antiquated quotes of French songs that have never been used in France in the last couple of centuries. Instead, what you’ll find here at FrenchPod101 is a list of genuinely useful and contemporary words that are still used by native speakers on a daily basis.

So let’s get on with it! Here’s our list of the top 10 untranslatable French words.

Table of Contents

  1. Tue-l’amour
  2. Dépaysement
  3. Yaourter
  4. Savoir faire
  5. Bof
  6. Insortable
  7. Voilà
  8. Cartonner
  9. Rebelote
  10. Contresens
  11. Bonus: Ratrucher
  12. How FrenchPod101 Can Help You Learn More French

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1. Tue-l’amour

Literally
“Love-killer”

Meaning
[Informal] Something that makes a person stop loving or feeling desire for another one.

Context
A Tue-l’amour usually describes a physical characteristic, a personality trait, or a behavior that’s seen as a turnoff by a partner or as a deal-breaker by a love interest. They’re the kind of things that put you off and make you forget about your romantic or sensual intentions. It can be used seriously or as a joke.

Example
Sa nouvelle coupe de cheveux est un vrai tue-l’amour !
“His new hairstyle is a proper passion killer!”

Un vrai tue-l’amour ! (“A real love-killer!”)


2. Dépaysement

Literally
“Un-country-ness” (ugh)

Meaning
This untranslatable word in French describes the feeling you get when you’re out of your familiar environment or when you change your habits.

Context
There are many shades of Dépaysement, from the pleasant sensation of being far from home, to the disorientation of being unwillingly placed outside of your comfort zone.

While Dépaysement can be used to describe the discomfort of breaking your routine or being homesick, it’s usually a positive feeling and something that people seek. You travel the world in search of Dépaysement, and any change of landscape, climate, or culture can evoke it.

Example
J’aime le Népal car le dépaysement y est total.
“I love Nepal because it’s a complete change of scenery.”

Son nouveau bureau l’a un peu dépaysé.
“His new office left him a little disoriented.”

Check out our free vocabulary list with audio recordings on FrenchPod101 to learn more words about traveling, and practice your accent.


3. Yaourter

Literally
“To yogurt”

Meaning
[Informal] Yaourter or Chanter en yaourt (“To sing in yogurt”) consist of singing by producing sounds and onomatopeias when you don’t know the lyrics or the language of the song.

Context
Made popular by the 1994 movie “Le Péril Jeune,” the verb Yaourter refers to the inarticulate flow of sounds that result from this singing “technique,” that would be the vocal equivalent of yogurt’s texture.

Because the French are often less-than-average in foreign language skills, it’s very common in France to Yaourt your way through karaoke nights with English songs or when we sing the Japanese opening credits of our favorite anime.

This is perhaps one of the most interesting of these untranslatable French words and phrases.

Example
Elle a yaourté de la K-Pop toute la soirée.
“She’s been yogurting K-Pop songs all night long.”


If you’re yogurting with enough passion and confidence, you can fool anyone!


4. Savoir faire

Literally
“To know how to make”

Meaning
A savoir-faire is a specific collection of practical skills and experience used to make a product or to provide a service.

Context
A savoir-faire is more than a set of skills or some theoretical expertise. Unlike other technical knowledges, it’s directly applicable to performing tasks or to fixing problems.

Example
La France est connue pour son savoir-faire en matière de vin.
“France is known to be competent when it comes to wine.”


5. Bof

Literally
[No translation]

Meaning
[Informal] Bof is used to express:

  1. Indecisiveness when you’re not sure whether to say yes or no, and you’re not really excited.
  2. Indifference when talking about something mediocre or uninspiring. The closest English word would be the equally informal “Meh.”

Context
Halfway between Oui (“Yes”) and Non (“No”), the word Bof is very useful when you don’t want to commit to a straight answer.

In its second meaning, it’s a quick way to express your lack of excitement toward something.

Example
A: On va au cinéma demain, tu veux venir ?
B: Bof

A: “We’re going for a movie tomorrow, do you want to come?”
B: Huh…not sure.”

C: Alors, est-ce que le film vous a plu ?
D: Bof bof… c’est pas extraordinaire.

C: “So, did you like the movie?
D: Meh…nothing special.”


The very face of “Bof”


6. Insortable

Literally
“That cannot be taken out”

Meaning
[Informal] Insortable or Pas sortable is told about someone whose bad manners or inappropriate behavior would embarrass you if you were to take them out to a social event.

Context
Insortable (as opposed to Sortable: someone who’s well-behaved enough to be taken out) can be used in a serious statement, but it’s often said as a joke while talking about someone with bad habits or questionable fashion choices.

For example, your friends could humorously accuse you of being Insortable when you spill your drink or lick your plate in a restaurant.

Example
Il est sympa ton copain mais il est vraiment insortable.
“Your boyfriend is nice but he’s really not fit for society.”


7. Voilà

Literally
“See there”

Meaning
Voilà is the grammatical contraction of the imperative Vois là (“See there”). It has various meanings.

  1. It’s mainly used to introduce a person, a thing, or their action that your interlocutor can see or perceive.
  2. Voilà la personne que vous attendiez. (“Here is the person you were waiting for.”)
  3. To mark the imminent or current state of a situation, as in
    Voilà qui est fait. (“Now, that’s done.”)
  4. To highlight things that have been said or explained.
    Voilà la raison. (“Here is the reason.”)

Context
The beauty of Voilà is how it can be used to put an end to a conversation without being rude.

Because of its second and third meanings, it’s the perfect word to signify that you have said what you had to say and there’s nothing more to it. This is especially useful for customer interactions, when you’ve explained something and want to wrap it up, say goodbye, or hang up the phone.

In many cases, a keen and confident Voilà can help end a conversation that’s been dragging on too long.

Example
[At the end of a conversation, when you feel like you’re done.]

  • Voilà. or Voilà voilà [Casual] (“That’s it”)
  • Et voilà (“And there you go”)
  • Enfin… voilà. (“Well…that’s it”)


8. Cartonner

Literally
“To cardboard”

Meaning
[Informal] To be very successful at something, to be a hit.

Context
Although it’s only used figuratively nowadays, the word Cartonner originally comes from the shooting galleries at fun fairs, where the target was often made of cardboard. Thus, Cartonner used to describe the action of successfully hitting the target.

Example
Ce film va cartonner en Europe.
“This movie will be a hit in Europe.”

Il a cartonné à son examen de Français.
“He totally aced his French exam.”

Ça cartonne !
“It rocks!”

A Man Pass the Exam
Il cartonne à son examen !


9. Rebelote

Literally
[No translation]

Meaning
[Informal] The closest translation to Rebelote would be “and then all over again.” It can be used when you repeat the same action or when a given situation happens again.

Context
This word comes from the card game La Belote (widely popular in France) where Belote and Rebelote happen when a player gets the Queen and King in their hand.

Figuratively, it’s used as a familiar way to talk about actions or events that repeat either once or over and over.

Example
Je nettoie tout le matin et rebelote le soir.
“I clean everything in the morning and all over again in the evening.”

Il a plu des cordes hier, et le lendemain : rebelote !
“It was raining buckets yesterday and then again on the next day!”


10. Contresens

Literally
“Anti-meaning”

Meaning
When an interpretation isn’t just a misinterpretation, but the opposite of the actual meaning or contains an internal contradiction.

Context
Contresens can also be used in the broader meaning of “nonsense.” Essentially, it’s an error of interpretation or translation that’s not necessarily contrary to the original meaning.

More subjectively, it also describes an absurd action or situation going against “common sense” or “how it should be.”

Example
Cette traduction est un contresens.
“This translation is a severe misinterpretation.”

Vouloir réconcilier écologie et capitalisme est un contresens.
“Trying to reconcile ecology and capitalism is a complete nonsense.”


11. Bonus: Ratrucher

Now that you’ve gone through our list of 10 untranslatable French words, here’s a bonus word that was too good to leave out.

Literally
[No translation]

Meaning
To thoroughly scrape a plate or a dish until there’s nothing left to eat.

Context
Ratrucher is an oddity, as it’s mostly used in my native north of France and is originally from the Picardie region. However, it sounds too funny to be left out of this list, and it’s pretty useful too!

You can do it with a fork, a knife, or a piece of bread, and it’s usually taken as a compliment by the chef.

Example
Elle ratruche toujours son assiette en fin de repas.
“She always thoroughly scrapes her plate clean after a meal.”

Find more vocabulary about food utensils and tableware in our free vocabulary list.

Plate and Fork
Une assiette parfaitement ratruchée. (“A perfectly scraped plate.”)


How FrenchPod101 Can Help You Learn More French

In this guide, you’ve learned the most useful untranslatable French words. We truly hope this article helped you tackle some French words that are untranslatable in English.

Did we forget any important expressions? Are you ready to put them to use and sound like a native speaker?

Try and use them with your French friends or contacts and see how they react! Also make sure to explore FrenchPod101, as it has plenty of free resources for you to practice your grammar and learn new words.

Remember that you can also use our premium service, MyTeacher, to get personal one-on-one coaching. Practice creating sentences using our untranslatable words with your private teacher so they can give you personalized feedback and advice.

Start with a bonus, and download the Must-Know Beginner Vocabulary PDF for FREE! (Logged-In Member Only)

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in French

About the Author: Born and bred in the rainy north of France, Cyril Danon has been bouncing off various jobs before he left everything behind to wander around the wonders of the World. Now, after quenching his wanderlust for the last few years, he’s eager to share his passion for languages.