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”.

Boujee vs bougie: How do you spell bougie?

In English, “bougie” is often intentionally spelled “boujee” or “bougee” but this would be considered a misspelling in French and “bougie” is the only correct spelling.

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?

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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.