6 French Words That Also Mean Their Opposite
Some French words mean their own opposite. Isn’t that fascinating?
Depending on the context, you might end up accidentally saying the opposite of what you want.
And this could be (literally) terrible!
Et toi ?
Did you know any of these words already?
Have you heard of other French words that could fit in this list?
Which words in your own language can also mean their opposite?
Bonus Material: Download the Transcript
Salut c’est Géraldine, bienvenue sur Comme une Française TV, Sound French, even to the French!
Some words mean their own opposite. Isn’t that fascinating? Take the English word “left”, for instance. It can mean ‘remaining’ as well as ‘departed’.
Let’s say, two women are sitting in a room, talking. One of them gets up and goes outside. Who’s left?
Well, each one of them, in a way. One woman has left the room and the other is left alone in the room!
And French language does that too. How?
Let’s dive in!
Terrible, terrible, is a prime example of what the linguists called l’énantiosémie, enantosemy, when a single word has opposite meanings. Here, context is everything.
So, at face value, Terrible [NdA : français] means “terrifying, disastrous.”
C’est terrible ! Un tremblement de terre a fait tomber mon toit ! It’s terrible! An earthquake made my roof fall down!
However, in common speech, it’s a compliment, actually, something like “awesome.”
Je suis allée à ton concert samedi, c’était terrible!
I went to your music show on Saturday, it was awesome!
If you want to avoid any misunderstanding, use other synonyms, such as génial , wonderful, or fantastique, fantastic.
Funnily though, pas terrible, the opposite of terrible [fr] only means one thing: mediocre.
Je suis allée au concert de Julie samedi… C’était pas terrible. En fait, c’était nul.
I went to Julie’s music show on Saturday… It was nothing special. Actually, it was terrible.
Hôte is a strange word. It can mean both a host, someone hosting an event, or a guest. On the one hand, un hôte / une hôte is a synonym for un invité / une invitée, a guest. It’s a bit old-fashioned, partly because it’s ambiguous, but it’s still used in some settings today–such as at a dinner party, a hostel or such.
J’espère que nos hôtes ne vont plus tarder. I hope our guests are not delayed any longer.
On the other hand, un hôte / une hôtesse is the host themselves, someone that takes care of guests or organizes an event. Though it’s still a bit old-fashioned. Il se fait tard, je vais prendre congé de nos hôtes.
It’s getting late, I will say goodbye to our hosts.
The feminine, une hôtesse, a hostess, is also used in other settings, though.
For instance, in common speech, une hôtesse de l’air is a stewardess, a flight attendant. But strangely, when the flight attendant is a man, he’s then called… un steward (a steward).
Vas-y is much more colloquial than hôte.
It’s close to Allez !, in a way–and I’ve talked about that one in a previous episode. You’ll find a link in the video description on the blog.
So basically, Vas-y means “Come on !” or “Go on.” It’s the imperative of Aller, to go, in the second person of the singular. And in this sentence, the pronoun Y means “there.” So right there, we have our first meaning:
“Tu penses que je devrais aller au concert de Julie ? - Oui, vas-y, ça lui fera plaisir.” “Do you think I should go to Julie’s concert?” “Yeah, go, it will make her happy.”
From there, it also became a general expression of approval and encouragement – just like Allez !
“Vas-y, Julie ! On est tous là ! T’es la meilleure !” Come on Julie! We’re all here! You’re the best!
But just like the English expression “come on”, Vas-y also carries another meaning: one of frustration, or disappointment.
Vas-y, j’ai payé 30 euros ma place et ils ont joué trente minutes, avec un son pourri. Je suis déçue.
Oh come on, I paid 30 euros for my ticket, and they played for only half an hour, with terrible sound mixing. I’m disappointed.
This meaning is common, and goes well with slang, like: Vas-y, on s’arrache. Come on, let’s get out of there!
With le verlan, the French slang that inverts the sounds, Vas-y becomes Zy-va, and it’s a staple of this form of slang as well as a cliché for when adults try to imitate young people talking.
Zy-va, là, t’es relou ! Come on now, you’re annoying!
- Quand même
Quand même is a very versatile expression in French.
At first glance, it means “even though” or “anyway.” It’s an expression of pushing against obstacles.
Je ne suis pas sûre d’aimer le concert de Julie, mais j’irais quand même. I’m not sure I’ll enjoy Julie’s show, but I’ll go anyway.
But Quand même can also become an expression of sarcasm, disbelief and disapproval, especially in negative sentences.
Je ne vais quand même pas payer 30 euros pour un concert amateur ! I am not going to pay 30 euros for an amateur show, are they kidding?
You can even use Quand même on its own! Then the meaning will depend on the context and your inflexion. You can use it to express admiration: “Quand même, pas mal.” “Not bad, much better than I thought.”
Or you can admit that you’re impressed: “Ah ouais, quand même ! Bravo !” “Impressive! Congrats!”
Or you can share your disapproval, like “I feel like that’s taking things a bit too far, isn’t it?”
Tu es partie du concert avant la fin ? Oh, quand même… You slipped out of the show before the end? Oh, that’s going a bit too far…
Anyway, you might hear or read people spelling it comme même (comme même), but this spelling is a mistake. This sentence doesn’t exist in French!
- Sans doute
Sans doute is literally “without a doubt.” So naturally, it takes the meaning of “probably” or “maybe.”
“Tu penses que Julie va arrêter la musique ?
- Sans doute, oui.” Do you think Julie is going to stop doing music now? -Probably, yeah.
“Sans doute” used to express total certainty, but its meaning has become muddled. So now, you need to be more precise; to express that something is “undoubtedly true,” we have to say sans aucun doute “without any doubt.”
“Tu penses que Julie va quitter le groupe?
- Depuis samedi, elle a déjà vendu sa guitare... donc oui, sans aucun doute.” “Do you think Julie will leave the band?” - “Since Saturday she’s already sold her guitar, so yeah, I’m sure of it.”
- Pourquoi ?
As a pronoun to start a question with, Pourquoi ? means both “why?” and “For what purpose?”
So, it doesn’t differentiate between the cause and the motive, the push and the pull. OK so it’s a subtle thing, and many people miss the difference. It can lead to misunderstanding, even between French people, without them realizing. It can even be a trick to avoid answering the real question. Like when you mean to ask “for what purpose” but the answer is about “why,” and no one has time to notice or to call out this trick!
Anyway, let’s take an example:
“Pourquoi tu as arrêté la musique?”
“Why did you stop playing music?” Or “What did you stop playing music for?”
So right there you can have two different answers.
One is the goal.
“Pour me concentrer sur mes études.”
“To focus on my studies.”
Pour is often a sign that an answer is about the goal.
But maybe the true answer is: “Parce que mon concert devant tous mes amis s’est très mal passé.” “Because my show in front of all my friends went terribly.” Parce que is often a sign that an answer is about the cause. But it can go both ways, really.
For instance, “Parce que je voulais me concentrer sur mes études.” “Because I wanted to focus on my studies,” brings us back to square one.
So be aware of context and subtleties! It will always help in French. And keep playing music anyway!
Et toi ?
Did you know any of these words already? Have you heard of other French words that could fit in this list? Which words in your own language can also mean their opposite?
Tell me in the comments section, I want to hear from you!
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Allez, salut !
Bonus Material: Download the Transcript