The surprising meaning of bougie in French

What do a bougie person and a candle have in common?

You might guess I’m talking about decor options or something along those lines. But if you’ve ever tried doing an online search for something like “bougie in French”, or asked a French friend how to translate “bougie”, what I’ve just said might ring a bell.

That’s because “bougie” is a faux -ami: a word that means very different things in French and English. Let’s look why it’s in the faux-ami rogues’ gallery- and find the real French equivalent of the English slang term “bougie”.

How do you spell bougie?

In English, “bougie” is often spelled “boujee” or other variations, but this isn’t correct in French. In French the only correct spelling is bougie.

What does bougie mean?

In mainstream American English, the word bougie – sometimes spelled boujee or boujie – is slang for a middle-class person who acts or wants to seem wealthier than they are.

In French, une bougie is a candle or, more rarely, a spark plug.  

Why is there confusion between the two words?

To understand why the word bougie has such wildly different meanings in English and French, you have to understand where each word comes from.

In English, “bougie” began as a shortened term of the word bourgeois. Yes, another French word is at the root of this term! Bourgeois in French used to mean middle-class. Over time, especially with the rise of workers’ rights movements, it’s become a derogatory term that signifies everything from materialism to mundanity, to an oppressive social class. This article gives a detailed explanation of the evolution of the term “bourgeois”.  

Bourgeois has more or less the same context in contemporary French, but it’s never been shortened to bougie. One very good reason is that bougie is already associated with something very different in French. Since around the 14th century, it’s meant “candle”.

The word is derived from the Arabic transcription of the Kabyle word “Bgyaet”, a city in Algeria that supplied a large quantity of the beeswax used in candles. Interestingly, this source notes that une chandelle, another French word for candle, was only used to designate tallow candles. Today, as far as I can tell, in mainstream French either term could be used for any type of candle.   

How do you say “bougie” in French?

A bunch of freshly baked baguettes. The paper around them is open and they've been laid out on a counter or table. They are lightly dusted in flour.
Artisanal bread isn’t bougie in France – it’s what most people eat.

Now that we’ve cleared up the confusion, you may be wondering how to say bougie – the English-language version of the word – in French.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a simple answer. While there are some terms that capture certain aspects of the word,there is no exact equivalent of bougie in French.

I think this may come down to culture.

American culture, where the term “bougie” is most used, has a tendency to mock or ridicule things like people sounding too intelligent or people who don’t have a lot of money opting for expensive brands and artisanal products.

In France, on the other hand, intelligence, quality products, and the like, reign supreme, even seem de rigueur – at least in mainstream culture.

Take this (admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek) list of things that are considered bougie. The list includes things like artisanal and organic products, caring about the environment, and going to art openings. These things are just a part of daily life for many people in France and aren’t judged by most.

For instance, you’ll find that many middle class French women opt for fewer items of clothing, choosing to invest in expensive pieces, rather than “fast fashion” that would more reasonably fit their budget. Wine is carefully chosen when entertaining friends and la nourriture bio (organic food) is inherently considered preferable to standard supermarket fare (even if not everyone purchases or eats organic food).

So you could say that what Americans call “bougie” is a way of life for many French people and so widespread and relatively accessible that it’s not really a source of mockery here!

On the other hand, when a person dresses or does things in an overly flashy or showy manner, the French will mock that, which is why so many of the words that could possibly work as a French translation of “bougie” tend to address that extremity, rather describing  a “basic” person trying to look wealthy.

Of course, this is just a thought, and of course not all middle-class French people would qualify as bougie. But it bears considering.

Another issue, brought up in a fascinating article in USA Today, is that the term “bougie” can mean different things to different groups. Author Sophia Tulp points out that it’s often used in Black culture – including hip-hop songs like Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” – to describe an upwardly mobile person of color. So “bougie” in this sense of the word may have pride attached to it, rather than mockery.  

French words for “bougie”

View of a woman from upper legs to chest. She is wearing a cardigan and holding a purse in the crook of one of her arms, facing the camera. Her subtle gold ring and bracelet and the new quality of the purse make her look sort of expensive, even though she's not wearing blatantly designer clothes. She may very well qualify as bougie!

With all of this in mind, here are a few very rough equivalents to the mainstream definition of “bougie” in French:

Negative French words for “bougie”

un/une bobo – a hipster. Bobo is a shortened form of the term bourgeois bohème (bourgeois bohemian) – that is, someone who looks the part of a starving artist but has at least some money. This word is the rough equivalent of “hipster” in French, although the word “hipster” itself is often used. But it could be used to describe a bougie person, since the two categories often overlap.  Note that bobo can also be a childish term for “bruise” (a boo-boo), so if you come across it, be sure you understand the context!

un frimeur/une frimeuse – a show-off, a bit snobby or stuffy

un parvenu/une parvenue – a social climber, nouveau riche

un poseur/une poseuse  – a poseur: a fake, insincere person pretending to be something they’re not

Positive French words for “bougie”

Here are some words you can use if you’re impressed by someone’s bougie taste and style.

chic – chic, classy

élégant(e) – elegant, classy

(la) classe/avoir de la classe – classy/to be classy. Ex: Son appartement est très classe, sans doute parce qu’il a de la classe. (His apartment is very classy, no doubt because he himself is classy.)


Again, none of these words precisely capture the denotation and connotation(s) of “bougie” in English. So the best solution may be to avoid trying to use a single word in French. Instead, you might say something like, “Elle achète des produits de luxe comme si elle était riche.” (She buys luxury products as if she were a rich person.)  

Even a description like this is a bit charged, since the French find it rude to talk about money and personal wealth – which may be another reason why there’s no exact French translation of “bougie”.


What are your thoughts about the English word “bougie”? Why do you think there’s no exact French equivalent?

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

27 thoughts on “The surprising meaning of bougie in French”

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  1. Absolutely fascinating!
    I’m 71 and watched my share of USA media over the years and I have NEVER come across this very US usage! I have certainly never heard it used this way in the UK. There’s always something new to know.
    The French pronounce “g” soft and “j” hard which is the opposite to UK English and when we say “boogie” (hard “g”) we refer to relaxed, free-form dancing, as in “boogie on down to (somewhere)”.
    Indeed “two nations separated by one language” (Winston Churchill, I believe)

    Reply
    • Yes, I think it was Winston. I remember a conversation some years ago with another francophile, discussing my observation that few English people seem “neutral” about France – there are the francophiles such as ourselves, and the francophobes. “Ah,” he said, “two nations divided by a common history!” The ‘reference back’ to Winnie was obvious & deliberate!

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  2. I have definitely heard the word “bougie” used time and time again to mean exactly someone who’s poor/middle-class but pretends to be rich/classy. It’s meant to be a derisive remark, and according to this article, I think the French word that’s closest to this would be un(e) parvenu(e) – a social climber.

    Reply
    • Bonjour Sammy, “parvenu(e)” is included in our list of possible translations of “bougie”. The reason it’s not a perfect translation is that not all bougie people are necessarily social climbers – many just act fancy but don’t actually work at trying to become upper class. But it’s definitely a similar meaning.

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  3. Thanks for a most informative article. Googling the word I also came up with two meanings in English given by the Oxford Languages site (a pretty reputable place!), namely the one featuring in your article and the medical term mentioned by Skr and SWG. The same entry notes that while the medical term is linked to the French word for candle (because early forms of the tool resembled candles) the word used in the context you mention has a totally different derivation, being a contraction of “bourgeois” – it suggests that this usage originated with African American usage; I also found a reference to “bourgie” as an alternative spelling. As others have commented, I’ve never encountered the word in use in England. So in English usage, the same apparent word but two different meanings and two different derivations (both from French) – I think linguists call this linguistic convergence.
    A couple of slightly tangential comments if I may.
    Firstly, there was a very popular sitcom in the UK called “Keeping Up Appearances”, in which the central character was very “bougie” in the American sense – very pretentious: as you can guess from the programme’s name, this was the core of the programme’s humour. Her surname was “Bucket” – but she insisted to everyone (including of course her husband) that it should be pronounced “bouquet”!
    Secondly, I think near the top of your article you may have inadvertently fallen victim to autocorrect – I assume “rouges’ gallery” should be “rogues’ gallery”!
    As a bit of a francophile I did already know the word in its French form but was delighted to learn a bit of American slang, so thanks for the article!

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    • According to “the law of big numbers” coincidences are inevitable. One happened to me just now. In the fishmonger’s I asked about a particular fish. “Oh, that’s a bourgie snapper – you know, like bourgeois – upper middle class”. The guy who told me, Anthony, is black British. So the term has crossed back east to this bit of Europe!

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    • Bonjour Laury, thanks for your comment.
      “Bourgie” to me is more closely tied to the connotation of “bourgeois” in English – that is: conventional, oppressive, etc. that’s why I didn’t include it. In terms of its use outside the US – and even in the US for that matter – it seems to be most common with younger generations, people who are very into online culture, and hip-hop culture.
      I love your example from “Keeping Up Appearances” and thanks for the warning about cursed autocorrect changing “rogues’ gallery” to “rouge’s gallery”…sigh. I have made the correction, so it should be fine now.

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  4. Bougie, i have never heard of its usage in English. Comes as new stuff to me. Perhaps it’s a regional term?
    Is there a difference between “bougie” and “chandelle”?

    Bougie, pronounced as such means kiss in Polish (colliquial)

    Reply
    • Bonjour Marilena, “Bougie” tends to be more common in American slang, and also in the hip-hop world. You can look at some of the links in the article for real-world examples. It’s pronounced like the French word for candle, and is not related to either of the words you suggest – it’s a shortened form of “bourgeois,” as explained in the article. I hope that explains it. It’s definitely not a word everyone uses (I never do, personally) but it does get a good deal of play in pop culture and music in the US.

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  5. A bougie in English is also a medical term describing an instrument used to dilate the esophagus. This would seemingly derive from the French derivation of the word.

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    • I didn’t know this, SWG. You can see below that Skr added some more details about this. In this case, “bougie” comes from the French word for “candle”, not “bourgeois”. Very interesting!

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  6. Coming from another angle, I associate the word bougie with its medical use. Still there is that “French” connection. Below is copied from medicinet.com
    Bougie” is a French word meaning “candle.” The French apparently derived the word from “Bugia,” the name of a North African town that exported candles to France. Because a bougie resembles a candle, English-speaking physicians wrote it into medical lexicons to describe candle-shaped diagnostic and therapeutic instruments. It was an apt word, for such instruments originally consisted of waxed silk or cotton rolled into a cylinder. Today, the French word “bougie” can also mean “probe” and “sparkplug.” Also, the English “word” bougie can sometimes be used to refer to suppositories like those inserted into the **** to treat hemorrhoids. Related terms include “bouginage” (also spelled “bougienage”), which refers to a procedure in which a bougie is used, and “bougie à boule,” which refers to a bulb-tipped bougie.

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  7. Alysa

    Thanks for the piece. I (an Englishman who has worked in New York) have never heard the term “bougie” (I mean, the word you say is English). I expect that’s because American is definitely not English. My standard example: in England we walk on the pavement; you wouldn’t last long if you tried that in America, as there it’s the part of the road a car goes!

    Unless all your readers are American, it might be worth checking an English dictionary sometimes. (-:

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    • Right you are, nigel. That’s why I wrote “American culture, where the term “bougie” is most used,” in the article. 🙂

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    • I believe that it is spelt boogie 🙂

      Another use of bougie may be the abbreviation of a flowering creeper called a bougainvillea.

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      • Not so, BH – please read the article – “bougie” can be spelled “boujee” or a few other phonetic alternatives, but it is never spelled “boogie”, since this has a very different pronunciation and connotation in English. 🙂 As for the abbreviation for the flower, I didn’t know that – but in that case, is it pronounced “boo jee” ?

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    • Mr S, those aren’t the same, since the pronunciation and origins are different. I believe the British pronounce the thing you’d find up someone’s nose “BOW GEY”, while the dance is “BOO GEY”. But “bougie” is pronounced the same as it is in French.

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        • Well said, Jonathan, yes it is. You can click on the audio in the article to hear how it’s pronounced in French. In English, the slang term is pronounced the same way but with an American accent. You can hear examples if you look up songs or YouTube videos about bougie people.

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        • I think French is far more consistent with its pronunciation rules than English (indeed, I think every European language is more consistent than English, with the possible exception of some of the Celtic languages!). Certainly the softening of g & c when followed by e or i. Phonetically speaking English is a minefield!

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