English Words That Will Never Translate Into French

Salut!

Do you ever feel like you have big gaps in your French vocabulary? This is totally normal. Even if you’ve been learningFrench for decades, there are always going to be words that you simply don’t know.

One of the reasons why: some English words that you can use everyday… don’t have clear translations in French!

“Confusing,” “Snack,” “Rude,” “Awkward,” and more: today, let’s cover some of these words, and see what you can use in French to approximate their meaning.

C’est parti !

1) A snack

Le goûter = a light bite in the afternoon (especially for children,) for example, une viennoiserie : un croissant or un pain au chocolat.

Un en-cas = short for “en cas de besoin” (“in case you need it”), “un en-cas” is the closest thing to “a snack,” but the word is formal and rarely used.

Grignoter = to nibble, and to eat outside of meals. Usually used negatively:
Je devrais arrêter de grignoter entre les repas. = “I should stop having snacks between meals.”

Un casse-croûte = “a break-crust”, is a very simple meal, often simply a sandwich. The kind of things you can eat for lunch break on the road, or when walking around a city or hiking in nature.

French culture doesn’t really allow “snack,” light food outside of meals. We still do it anyway, but it’s kind of a cultural blind spot. Instead of a clear translation of the noun “a snack,” we use verbs like “grignoter” or… the English word directly: “un snack.

For instance, on this cooking site in French: 15 recettes de snack totalement faciles

2) Rude

“Rude” is a false friend, a false cognate! The French adjective “rude” exists, but we don’t use it for everyday impoliteness or for offensively bad manners.

The English adjective “Rude” is in French:

  • Impoli = impolite
  • Grossier / Vulgaire = Vulgar
  • Insultant = Insulting
  • Agressif = Aggressive

These words care more about a breach of etiquette, rather than hurt feelings. That’s a nice summary of the stereotypical cultural differences between French and American people!

In French, on the other hand, :
Rude = harsh (weather), difficult (task), brutal (treatment), rough

Or using the dictionary definitions, we find other synonyms:

  • Rugueux = rough (une peau rude = rough skin)
  • Sévère = strict, harsh (Tu as été rude avec lui. = You were harsh with him.)
  • Frustes = rough-mannered. (Des manières rudes = rough manners)
  • Redoutable = formidable. (Une rude concurrence = formidable opposition)

Click here to explore more ‘false friends’ words :

We sometimes use the adverb rudement to mean “very, particularly.” It’s a bit old-fashioned now. But you might still find French books where someone says, for instance:
C’est rudement bien ! = It’s really good / It’s so good!

3) Judgmental

French culture can be very judgmental! But there’s no simple translation for the word itself.

Instead, we have:

  • Méprisant = scornful,
  • Accusateur = accusing,
  • Moralisateur = sanctimonious, moralizing
  • Critique = critical

Elle m’a jeté un regard critique. = She gave me a critical look.

And verbs:
Juger = to judge (the verb)
Critiquer / Faire des critiques = to criticize / to give criticism

It’s like the expression “Holier than thou” : there’s no clear French translation, but it’s a common dynamic nonetheless!

Critique” is also used for art (or food) appreciation, of course!
Un critique = a critic
Une critique = a review

4) Offended

French language does have a translation for this:
Offensé = offended

However, it sounds outdated – more appropriate for a XVIIIth century offense to one’s honor requiring a duel, or something.

Related words are basically only used for sports and the military:

  • L’offense = the offense (an attack)
  • Offensif = offensive (focused on attacking)

For offended feelings instead, we’d use adjectives such as:

a) Choqué = shocked.
→ Or sous le choc.

b) Blessé = hurt, wounded
→ And not béni (= blessed.)

c) Heurté = “bumped
Heurter = to hit without meaning too, to bump into (literally)
La voiture a heurté une barrière. = The car hit a safety barrier / bumped into a barrier.
Metaphorically: J’ai été heurté par tes paroles. = I’ve been struck by your words, I’ve been hurt by your words.

d) Vexé = piqued, vexed
Vexer = to pique someone’s pride, to hit someone’s self-assurance.
Tu ne m’as pas invitée, ça m’a vexé, je suis vexée. = You didn’t invite me, it hurt my pride.

So “offended” is a bit of a mix of “heurté” and “vexé” : a hit that can hurt, but also an attack on your pride.

Now, in real life, meanings can change. And with the influence of American culture on French discourse, offensé is making a comeback: French people are more and more simply using offensé as a direct translation for “offended.” But it didn’t fully catch on yet.

The same thing is happening with the English adjective “offensive” as well.
You can use:

  • Blessant = hurtful
  • Injurieux = injurious, verbally abusive
  • Insultant = insulting

But when translating English views of something being “offensive,” French people simply use offensant more and more. Even though the word didn’t really exist before.

5) Confusing

Confusing = déroutant, confus

However, there’s a bit more behind this:
Déroutant (= literally “rerouting”) also has a meaning of “surprising, original, unusual.” And it hints at a hidden order behind the confusion – it’s something you haven’t yet understood. Un film déroutant = An unusual movie, that you didn’t fully understand (but you could, with time and thought.)
Confus also means “confused” and “messy.” Un film confus = a movie that doesn’t quite know what points to make, a messy movie.

To complicate matters, French people started using confusant as well. It’s a clumsy direct translation that sounds weird. Like offensant earlier, it’s not really widespread, but it’s getting more commonly used.

However, the official arbiter of the French language, l’Académie française, has issued an official reclamation against using “confusant” ! Instead, they recommend using:

  • Troublant = troubling
  • Perturbant = disturbing

But once again, the meanings don’t exactly match.

6) Empowerment

The English term “Empowerment” comes from the feminist struggles of the early-XXth century. But for the French public, this concept was mostly introduced in the 2000s by big organizations such as l’ONU (l’Organisation des Nations-Unies) (= the UN) or la Banque mondiale (= the World Bank.) And it’s now being used for business and management, far from its radical roots. And since business and management really love using English words, they didn’t look very far for a suitable French translation.

The official translation is l’autonomisation (but it sounds robotic,) sometimes la responsabilisation (but it sounds judgmental,) or l’émancipation (but it sounds tied to the fight against slavery / for voting rights.) L’empouvoirement also exists, but it sounds really ugly and is very rarely used.

So in most cases, people simply use the English word directly: “Empowerment.”

Coming from Québec, we have an alternative : le pouvoir d’agir (= the power to act, to do things.) And it comes back to the activist roots of empowerment.

Here are some great resources in French, to practice your French reading comprehension with a specific, complex topic:

Le pouvoir d’agir also offers a nice translation for “agency” (in sociology / psychology), the capacity to act. The official translation is agentivité, but it’s quite obscure.
For a “travel agency” or an “Intelligence Agency” we simply say une agence.

7) Awkward

Awkward = Gênant, or Gêné

  • J’ai eu un moment gênant avec Julien. = I had an awkward moment with Julien.
  • Hum, désolé je suis un peu gêné. = Hmm, sorry, I’m being a bit awkward.

However, we also have:

  • Gênant = embêtant = troublesome / annoying
  • Gêné = embêté = having trouble / being annoyed

Mon vélo a crevé, donc c’est gênant pour se déplacer. = My bike tire punctured, so it’s difficult to move around.
Je suis gêné pour venir te voir. = I’ll have some trouble coming to see you.

Between “awkward” and “troublesome,” there’s:
Une question gênante = an awkward question, a troublesome question

See also:
Mal à l’aise = ill at ease
Embarrassant / Embarrassé = embarrassing / embarrassed

Lionel se retrouve souvent dans des situations embarrassantes. = Lionel often ends up in embarrassing, awkward situations.

Maladroit = clumsy, un maladroit / une maladroite = a clumsy person

Antoine a encore fait une remarque maladroite. = Once again, Antoine made a clumsy, awkward comment.

Gauche is a more uncommon synonym for maladroit. Gauche also means “left” (opposite of “right”.) The opposite is habile / adroit (= skillful, dexterous.)

And like French comedian, poet and pun artist Raymond Devos once said:
Je suis gaucher. Je suis adroit de la main gauche, et gauche de la main droite.
(= I’m left-handed. I’m dexterous with the left hand, and clumsy with the right hand.)

8) Foodie

Yes, French people love eating well:

  • Un amateur (une amatrice) de bonne cuisine = someone who really enjoys good food
  • Un passionné (une passionnée) de restaurant = somebody who’s passionate about restaurants.
  • Un gastronome = really enjoys the finest food
  • Un gourmet = really enjoys the finest food, and finest wine
  • Un gourmand = really enjoys eating, not necessarily gourmet food

So you could say:

  • Je suis un grand gourmand ! = I really love to eat, I’m a big foodie.
  • Mon frère est un gourmet, il nous a invités à dîner dans un restaurant gastronomique. = My brother is a gourmet, a foodie, he invited us for dinner at a gourmet restaurant / a foodie restaurant / a fancy restaurant.

Anyway, there’s no French “foodie.” Yes, there are of course countless great restaurants in France. And many people really enjoy fine dining. But it didn’t really become a widespread hobby or a one-word concept!

I have a clearer, more in-depth explanation in my full lesson on that topic!

Click here to learn more:
Are There Foodies in France? A Native Parisian Explains

Obscure French song that I like: Blues gourmand (Charlélie Couture, 1997)

9) The Extra Mile: More Untranslatable English Words

Successful needs a longer expression:

  • Un chanteur à succès = a hit singer,
  • Un plan qui a marché = a successful plan
  • Une femme qui a réussi = a successful woman

Contrarian has a false cognate:
Contrariant = Annoying (situation, obstacle)
However, you can say:

  • À contre-courant = “against the current”, “countercurrent,” “running counter to”…
  • Anticonformiste = non-conformist, maverick…

A crush (romance) would be un béguin but it’s very old-fashioned. Or un coup de cœur (= “a heart’s strike”) but this one is less used romantically, and more for an object or a show or a house. So instead, influence by the English-speaking Internet, young French people simply took to saying: “un crush / mon crush.

And finally, in the early evening in a French bar, the words “Happy Hour” stay in English!

Click here to learn more about French misconceptions:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!


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Join the conversation!

  • Don’t forget – they actually use the phrase “happy hours” in France, not “happy hour” (because it’s usually more than one hour long!) 🙂

  • Merci bien, Géraldine. Vous avez répondu à mes propres questions sur ’empowerment’ et ‘snack’. (Mais n’oubliez pas que tous vos étudiants ne sont pas américains. Il n’y a pas qu’eux qui cherchent un équivalent de ‘rude’!) Un partisan admiratif canadien

  • I have also seen Gourmand(e) to mean ‘greedy’ and not to mean ‘Gourmet’. Is this correct? Can you please comment on this?

    • Bonjour Malati,

      Oui, en effet, it is possible for gourmand.e to mean greedy depending on the context.

      Merci,

      Fabien
      Comme Une Française Team

  • As usual, this is great and very useful. Your resources are excellent. There is one thing, however, please remember that the majority of English-speaking people do not come from America and America has made a lot of changes to the English language that are not used in other English-speaking countries. There are also many cultural differences, as you would know, having lived in England. A comparison could be between the language and culture of people from France and people from Canada, who speak a version of French. I don’t mean to be critical as your courses are, as I said, excellent. It is just a point to remember. English comes from England.

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