French is an evolving language. Each year, new words are added to the main French dictionaries. They reflect the changes in our vocabulary, and in society at large.
Let’s talk together about a few of these new French words of 2022.
C’est parti !
0) Introduction: Les dictionnaires
Un dictionnaire = a dictionary
Today, we’ll talk about some of the new words that will appear in next year’s edition of the two main French dictionaries, both named after their founders, published by for-profit private groups, and updated every year with a new edition:
- Le Petit Larousse → created in the 1890-1900s, a bit more conservative, tries to find logical explanations for language changes.
- Le Petit Robert → created in the 60’s, a bit more sociological view, simply surveying and observing the words that are used.
They’re both trying to be seen as simple references of how French people actually use their language. To be honest, they’re rarely used in 2022. But every year, they tell the press which words they’re going to add to their next editions, to drum up some publicity.
Personally, I find it easier to simply use le Wiktionaire, the Wikipedia version. Or the linguistic resources of the CNTRL (Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales), affiliated to the public science institute of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).
1) Les mobilités douces
La mobilité douce =soft mobility
La circulation douce = gentle traffic, soft transportation
“Soft mobility” is any kind of transportation that’s less polluting than a car. Sometimes trains are included as “soft transportation,” or trams, and sometimes it only means “bicycles and walking.”
Individually, these words aren’t new, but the concept behind these expressions have been trending in France for the last few years. It comes from a desire in some French cities to move away from car-centric urbanism. Mainly by closing streets as une rue piétonne (= a street for walkers only, no cars allowed) or by creating une piste cyclable (= a bike lane) for le vélo (= bicycle),
The most bicycle-friendly French cities are Grenoble and Strasbourg.
La mobilité douce is often linked to l’écologie (= environmentalism), and even the trending concept of la transition écologique (= transition towards environmental sustainability.)
2) La gênance
La gênance = Awkwardness.
“Awkward / Awkwardness” doesn’t have a great translation in French. We can use Gênant / La gêne, and it roughly works. But it also means “bothering, being an obstacle” so it doesn’t exactly fit.
With American culture spreading more and more with the Internet, young French people wanted their own word to translate “awkward.” So they made one: la gênance. It’s a new word, not everyone will approve of using it, but it’s catching on just enough to get in a dictionary.
J’ai échappé à un moment de gênance. =
J’ai échappe à un moment gênant. =
I avoided an awkward moment. / I got out of an awkward moment.
3) Le wokisme
Le wokisme = Wokism.
American culture wars have an impact on French culture, but the vocabulary to talk about it sometimes lags behind a bit. So we get barely-Frenchified words like “le wokisme” as newspapers headlines. In France too some people claim that wokism is a very dangerous discourse, while other people claim it doesn’t even exist.
Tangentially, people are also talking (in good or bad) about l’écriture inclusive (= inclusive spelling.) It’s not the hot controversial thing as of right now (late 2022), but heated discussions about it come and go.
Extra mile: Grab bag about “écriture inclusive” (as I understand it)
Gender holds a special place in the French language, even more than in English. For instance, as you know, in the French language everything is either masculine or feminine: “une table” is feminine, “un dessert” is masculine. And more importantly, the plural of a mixed group (feminine and masculine nouns together) is always masculine.
Ces hommes et ces femmes sont tous français. = These men and these women are all French. → “français” is in the form of the masculine (plural.)
Les Français sont gentils. = French people are nice. → “Français” uses the masculine form, even though the underlying people are men and women.
This can be seen as suboptimal. Recently, some militants have been advocating for a rethinking of these rules, by trying things like:
- Ces hommes et ces femmes sont toutes françaises. (The adjective takes the gender of the closest noun that comes before, here it’s feminine.)
- Nous sommes Français·es. (= “We’re all French,” using le point médian · to indicate that a noun regroups feminine and masculine elements.)
- Les Français·es sont tou·te·s gentil·les (using le point médian · on adjective as well.)
Another experiment has been using gender-neutral pronouns. One of them seems to have emerged as the more solid candidate : iel, especially used for “il ou elle” (“he or she.”)
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are only two occasions where you might stumble on un point médian · or iel in French: if you’re following some special feminist, left-wing circles, or if you’re following some specific conservative, right-wing people who like to make fun of it.
The results have issues, obviously, but at least I find the experiment interesting, and it might help clear up some things when you’re browsing French Twitter.
4) La grossophobie
La grossophobie = fatphobia. From gros (= big, or fat.)
French people aren’t immune to obesity. And obese French people often face additional hardships and hostility from society, and that’s: grossophobe.
It’s different from la glottophobie (= glottophobia, discrimination based on the accent.)
The French accent you’ll hear on TV and in movies is almost always a “Parisian” accent. French regional accents are declining (even the “real” original popular Parisian accent has almost disappeared), and seen as somewhat backwards. Sometimes it’s charming and down-to-earth, but it’s just as often the butt of a joke. It also applies to the accents of foreigners or immigrants, but then it’s part of plain xenophobia.
5) Le Covid long (& l’Académie française)
Le Covid long (= Long Covid)
Covidé, covidée (= person who’s got Covid.)
COVID is part of our lives now.
There’s been some grammar talk during the pandemic: le Covid or la Covid ?
While virtually everyone was saying “le” (masculine), in May 2020 l’Académie française published a note saying that people should say “la” instead. (Probably because the one woman in charge decided it by herself.) This note created an outsized discussion in the media and population, giving ammunition to the institutions and people who enjoy correcting other people. But in the end, everyone is pretty much saying “le Covid” still.
So let’s talk a little about l’Académie. It’s been founded 1634 by le cardinal Richelieu, to centralize the spelling and definitions of the French language.
** Le truc en plus **
Richelieu is also well-known for being the villain in the story of Les trois mousquetaires, by writer Alexandre Dumas. That story has been adapted countless times, and there’s a new movie coming up, with at least an all-star casting. Trailer for the movie.
But is centralization necessary? Or desirable? Even now? Is it even possible?
Les Académiciens, the members of the French Academy, are politicians, former politicians, philosophers, a clergyman, a biologist… Very few members have any kind of background in linguistics or even grammar. They’re supposed to publish up-to-date dictionaries, but in 400 years of existence, they’ve only published… 8 of them. The last one they completed was published in 1935.
The Académie publishes notes from time to time, sometimes making a stand against a (perceived) common mistake in using the language. Their influence in shaping the language is usually limited to center-right media and a few official forms. Beyond their limited actual influence, the charge also comes with a lot of money and real estate, with practically no oversight.
But they do have some prestige in French culture! Partly because they have good aesthetics: the Académiciens get to wear a gorgeous green vest and a cool ceremonial sword, and they call themselves les Immortels (= the Immortals.)
And partly because the idea of an opaque conclave of experts guarding the “real” French language is indeed appealing to some. Unfortunately, they’re not experts, they’re not safeguarding it effectively, and there’s not even a “real, set” language.
I used to be more sympathetic about l’Académie. But I found good arguments “against” it by several sources, mainly:
- Le français est à nous ! – By Maria Candea & Laélia Véron
→ Summary in French
- La VÉRITÉ sur l’Académie française – By French YouTube channel Linguisticae, a linguist
Extra resources: Lingusiticae’s video
That long video hits many points, including:
- L’Académie is not an independant council, but historically tied to power – including shameful links with Nazi Collaboration during WWII.
- L’Académie isn’t a council of experts of the language and innovative writers – but rather a club for retired politicians, nobles and high bourgeoisie with different kinds of formation. They’re old, very largely male, and picked according to inside negotiations between ideological sides, instead of merit or competence.
- Their actual work is often based on shoddy reasoning and faulty grammatical history. The one time they tried to issue a grammar book, it was largely incoherent and missing a ton of cases.
- The members don’t often come to the meetings and office. They delegate a large part of their work to low-paid interns with poor working conditions. The Académie’s funding is opaque and expensive.
- Other countries work just as well without an Académie.
6) New words from other countries
Le Baiser (= literally “the romantic kiss”) gets one more meaning: it’s also une pâtisserie belge (= a pastry from Belgium.)
Le café blanc (= “white coffee”) is not a coffee – but a drink made with hot water, honey, and orange blossom water, from le Liban (= Lebanon.)
Le planchodrome is a word from le Québec, meaning “skatepark.” In France, we simply call it le skatepark.
French people often jump to creating anglicisms, because it sounds cooler. But Québec can be very protective of its French language – by law. Often, when French people use English words, there’s a more direct translation coming from Québec. Here, un planchodrome is a place where you use une planche à roulette (= a skateboard.)
In France, we would say faire du skateboard / faire du skate, au skatepark.
** Le truc en plus **
The most egregious example of Québec / France differences is probably in the title of English movies. Québec has to translate them to French by law, and it’s sometimes clunky. While in France we would use the English title… or change it but keep it in English. And it doesn’t always make sense.
- The Hangover → Lendemain de veille (Québec) / Very Bad Trip (France)
- Step Up → Vivre pour danser (Québec) / Sexy Dance (France)
- Cool Runnings → Les Apprentis Champions (Québec) / Rasta Rockett (France)
Finally, une go (= a girlfriend) is a new word for une petite amie / une copine (familiar) / une meuf (verlan slang.) It’s an African word. French language has long been influenced by African and Arab languages, and this influence has been more pronounced with immigration since the 1960s. Especially for slang and youth culture.
7) The extra mile – Blog only: more new words
Un ascenseur émotionnel = “an emotional lift,” an emotional rollercoaster
Un pervers narcissique = “a malignant narcissist, a sociopath.” The concept has been getting some traction these last few years to talk about a manipulative man, with dark triad personality traits. See also the movie: Mon Roi (2015), by Maïwenn, with French actor Vincent Cassel.
Chiller = “to chill, to relax” → se relaxer, se détendre (= to relax), glander (familiar French: to loaf around, to do nothing)
Un brouteur = in Africa, it’s un arnaqueur (= a con man, a fraudster) that specifically operates on the Internet, like catfishing, false classified ads or more. The word spread here as well as they started to target people living in France. See more: Brouteur (Internet) (Wikipedia)
And now you can dive deeper into modern French vocabulary!
Click here to get your next lesson:
- French “Slang” Words for All Ages
- Top 5 Favourite French Expressions (in Slang)
- Fast Spoken French: Understanding French Slang
- 10 Popular French Slang Words for Everyday Life
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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