Do you find it interesting to learn the origin behind French vocabulary words? Well, you’re going to love today’s lesson.
Sometimes a brand is so successful, that we forget it’s a brand name and not the actual name of the object it sells. In English, for example, you might refer to a plaster or bandage as “Band-Aid”, forgetting this is actually a brand name!
The same is true in French vocabulary. French people started using brand names as object names — and it can be confusing to French learners like you!
For instance, if someone asks you: “Tu me passes le sopalin ?” (“Can you give me the sopalin ?”), the brand name “Sopalin” doesn’t give you much information about the actual object.
In these instances, you can’t use etymology or similar-sounding words in other languages to guess the translation!
Don’t worry, we’ll fix that with today’s French lesson 🙂
Learning goals: This is what you’ll be able to do after watching this lesson
- Beginner: Learn 5 new French vocabulary words
- Intermediate: Learn the generic names for these French words, too
- Advanced: Remember the stories behind the names
Bonjour c’est Géraldine.
Bienvenue sur Comme une Française. C’est parti !
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1) Le sopalin
Le sopalin is a kitchen (paper) towel. It comes in big rolls you can use to clean up spilled coffee or to wrap up sandwiches. Its non-brand, generic name is l’essuie-tout (= literally “wipe-all”)
The product was first sold in France in les années 1950 (the 50’s) by the French company Sopalin (short for Société du Papier Linge = “paper towel company”), which doesn’t exist anymore.
Nowadays, we use either that brand name or the generic name to talk about any paper towel, from any brand.
2) Un K-way
Un K-way (= pronounced with a French “Kah” sound) comes from a popular product invented in 1965 by (Northern) French company K-way: a light, waterproof jacket for children, that you could fold and pack up into un sac banane (= a waist bag.)
It soon became a very popular alternative to the usual heavy children raincoats.
The original name for the product was “En-K” – which is a phonetic derivative “en cas” (= “in case of”). It’s an allusion to the fact that children should carry it “en cas de pluie” (= “in case of rain.”) Then a consulting firm advised the French company to “translate” it to “K-Way” instead, to make it sound more American, and thus, cooler. And in 1965, it worked!
Nowadays, any light raincoat (= un imperméable) or windbreaker jacket (= un coupe-vent) can be called “un K-way” in popular spoken French.
If you’re interested in learning popular spoken French, you might enjoy my course “Subtle French for Fitting In”. It is based around actual recorded (unrehearsed) dialogues from real everyday life in France.
Beloved (Northern) French comedian Dany Boon became famous in part because of his comedy bit Le K-Way, where he made fun of all the problems children had to endure in this light raincoat.
3) Un (stylo) bic
Un bic or un stylo bic is the very popular brand name for un stylo-bille or un stylo à bille (= a ballpoint pen.)
It comes from the company founded by Marcel Bich, who tweaked and perfected the regular ballpoint pen in 1950, and was able to sell a lot of them for cheap.
Be careful though, it’s a masculine word. Un bic is a pen, but une bique is a goat (another word for une chèvre) !
Of course, all these brand names are part of a specific culture – they can be different in other francophone countries.
4) Une carte bleue
Une carte bleue (= “a blue card”) is a credit/debit card (French cards do both, it’s a source of confusion when abroad). It’s a brand name that came to mean any type of une carte bancaire (= a credit or debit card), whatever its color!
Since “carte bleue” and “carte bancaire” share the same initials, it became common for some people to simply call it “une CB.”
5) Un Opinel
5) Un Opinel
Un Opinel is a famous brand of pocket knife. Its blade can unfold, and the safety ring prevents it from folding back on your fingers when cutting a slice of camembert.
It was invented by Joseph Opinel in 1890 in Savoie (a French region in the Alps). Since then, it became the most popular knife for rural or outdoorsy French people. Many people have at least one, especially where I’m from. In my home we have four of them!
The generic name for a knife is un couteau, while a foldable pocket knife is un canif.
In France, the Swiss Army knife is simply called un couteau suisse (= a Swiss knife.)
Your turn now to practice your French vocabulary! What’s the popular brand name for these? And the generic name?
- A pocket knife
- A ballpoint pen
- A kitchen towel
(Answers: un Opinel / un canif – un Bic / un stylo à bille – le sopalin / l’essuie-tout)
-- Lesson Recap: Here's what we learned today --
- Le sopalin
- Le K-way
- Le bic
- La carte bleue
Et toi ?
Est-ce que tu connais d’autres objets en français dont le nom vient d’une marque ?
Do you know other objects whose names come from brands in French?
For example, you can write: “Je dors avec des boules Quies parce que mon mari parle en dormant.”
Do you have any other questions about this lesson? Share your thoughts in the comment section!
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Allez, salut 🙂