French is famous for its numerous untranslatable words and expressions that, through the centuries, have bled into
English and we use on a regular basis. Below are several of my favorite untranslatable French words, that though
less precise than German ultra long compound nouns, express ambiguities with an unparalleled exactness.
My personal favorite, and a sign that perhaps I am truly becoming a Parisienne, is a verb that describes a
beautifully French tradition and national pastime, that of complaining but in an unaggressive, rather casual matter
of fact way of expressing your discontent with the world. Whether you’re pissed off at the prefecture or your
neighbor who keeps hosting parties until five in the morning, choosing to râler, suits every possible frustrating
You will hear this word quite often if you travel or choose to live in France, but for English speakers, worry not,
it has no decisively cruel neoliberal connotation but rather refers to ‘profiting from,’ on a more practical level
that is not ‘taking advantage of,’ or literally ‘earning money from,’ but expresses pure enjoyment. For example
someone might encourage you to “profiter du soleil,” which simply means to enjoy the sun!
Iconized through the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, and the romantic movement of the 19th century, “flâner”, and its
subsequent personification in the “flâneur,” this word connotes walking aimlessly with the hope of a chance
encounter, as is described and immortalized in Baudelaire’s, 1857 poem “À une Passante,” as well in the paintings of
Édouard Manet depicting Jardin des Tuileries in the mid 19th century.
“Retrouvailles”, a thoroughly romantic and emotional word, describes the sensation of seeing a loved one again after
a significant period of time.
5. ET… VOILÀ!
You’ve probably heard the word more times than you can count but might not know what exactly it refers to. “Voilà,”
roughly translates (though it is fundamentally instranslatable) to “finally,” or “there it is,” or, a variety of
filler words that announce a conclusion, ironic, expected, or otherwise… et voilà!