We often think of the French as masters of living well, with excellent cuisine, lots of vacation days, and a general joie de vivre. But like most stereotypes, this one isn’t exactly true. For one thing, the French have a problem that you’ll find in most developed countries: As a recent story on the news show Zone Interdite revealed, about 50% of French people say they don’t get enough sleep.
It mainly comes down to the same issue lots of us around the world may have – staying up late online or on the phone, or being woken up or disturbed by one of our precious connected devices. Another common sleep struggle among the French might be just as relatable to you: sleeping with a pet. I can personally attest to the fact that even a generally lazy cat will wake you up at least once or twice at night. According to this study, an estimated 16% of French people would agree with me.
As I’ve thought about sleep in France, I’ve also realized that, although France has a reputation for being a place where people live well and take their time, sleep doesn’t have the important role that it does in countries like Spain. There is no traditional concept of siesta. The midday break in France is more devoted to savoring a good meal than to sleeping.
Still, the French, like just about any culture, have their own ways of talking about sleep, and these terms and expressions are useful to learn. After all, not only is it polite or kind to wish someone a good night’s sleep; from the statistics I’ve shared, it’s likely the French person you’re talking to really needs it!
Here are some ways to talk about sleep in French, starting with how to wish someone a good night.
How to say “Good night” in French
If you want to wish someone “Good night” in French, your basic choices are very limited. (This said, If you want to get creative, an internet search for “Comment souhaiter bonne nuit” leads to some interesting results, like this list of text messages to send your absent sweetheart.)
Here are the three most common ways to wish someone goodnight in French:
1. Bonne nuit
Bonne nuit literally means “Good night” and is used the same way as in English. It can be said to anyone, and is the easiest, most basic nighttime farewell.
That said, be sure not to confuse it with Bonne soirée – Good evening. While “Good evening” in English is a very formal expression, often associated with old-school vampires, it’s very common in French. Bonne soirée is used to end an evening or nighttime conversation with anyone that you’re not directly seeing off to bed.
For example, if I’m in a grocery store late at night, I would wish the cashier Bonne soirée (and they would do the same to me) because they’re not in front of me in their pajamas, and I’m not staying at their house and aware that they’re headed to their bedroom for the night.
On the other hand, if I’m at my in-laws’ house and we’re all going to our bedrooms to sleep, I would wish them Bonne nuit.
2. Dors bien
Meaning “sleep well,” dors bien can also be used in the imperative form with vous: Dormez bien. But this would probably mean you’re talking to multiple people, not that you’re addressing someone in a formal context, since, in most cases at least, this expression tends to reflect a certain tenderness and closeness. I could see using it with someone you don’t know very well, however, if you’ve been talking about sleep and it’s late and you know they’ll sleep in a few hours.
For example, if my baker tells me she’s been having trouble sleeping, and the boulangerie is about to close for the evening, depending on the feeling of the conversation, I might say Dormez bien as I leave. But mostly, it’s used with people close to you, or with someone in a vulnerable situation (someone who is in hospital, a young child, etc.).
3. Fais de beaux rêves
Literally, “Make beautiful dreams,” fais de beaux rêves is the French equivalent to the English expression “Sweet dreams.”
I really love how the French version implies that the sleeper can create their own dreams. It’s kind of inspiring, in a way. Of course, whenever I have a nightmare or something weird or awkward occur in a dream, I like it less….
This is another expression that would generally be used with someone you’re close with, not in a formal situation. If you used it with vous (Faites de beaux rêves) that would probably be to address multiple people, not in a formal context.
So, basically, two of the three common ways to say goodnight in French are reserved for people you’re close with. When in doubt, use Bonne nuit.
Some other sleep-related French expressions and vocabulary
Of course, “Goodnight” is only the beginning. What if you want to talk about how you sleep or slept, what kind of sleeper you are, or what kind of night you had? Here are some words and expressions to help with that:
To be tired.
Example : Il a essayé de m’expliquer l’œuvre de Rousseau, mais j’avais trop sommeil pour l’écouter. (Hard as he tried to explain Rousseau’s works to me, I was too tired to listen.)
Avoir le sommeil agité/lourd/léger
To be a restless/heavy/light sleeper.
Example : Ne t’inquiètes pas si tu as le sommeil agité – j’ai le sommeil lourd, tu ne me réveilleras pas. (Don’t worry if you’re a restless sleeper – I’m such a heavy sleeper that you won’t wake me up.)
To sleep well.
We saw this previously in the imperative form; you’ll also often hear it in the passé composé, when people are describing how they slept.
To sleep outdoors.
Literally translated, it means, quite charmingly, “to sleep like the beautiful star”. This is even more charming if, unlike me, you actually enjoy sleeping outside. Example : Malgré le froid, nous étions contents d’avoir dormi à la belle étoile. (Despite the cold, we were happy to have slept outside.)
To sleep like…
As in English and many other languages, in French, there are a number of fun ways to express that you’ve slept well. Here are the most common:
- Dormir comme un ange (to sleep like an angel)
- Dormir comme un sabot (to sleep like a clog (heavy wooden shoe))
- Dormir comme une marmotte (to sleep like a groundhog)
- Dormir comme un loir (to sleep like a dormouse)
- Dormir comme une souche (to sleep like a stump – the equivalent of the English expression “to sleep like a log”)
- Dormir comme un bébé (to sleep like a baby.)
Examples: Je me sens bien aujourd’hui parce que hier soir j’ai dormi comme une marmotte. (I feel good today because I slept like a groundhog./Il y avait de l’orage, mais dans notre petite chambre, nous avons dormi comme des loirs. (There was a storm but in our little room, we were sleeping like dormice.)
To be falling asleep standing up.
Example: Je dors debout – je vais aller me coucher. (I’m falling asleep standing up – I’m going to go to bed.) Be careful not to confuse this with the expression à dormir debout, which means something that is ridiculous and hard to believe.
To sleep heavily/like a stone.
Plomb is the French word for lead, so heavy is definitely the idea here! Example : Après avoir acheté un nouveau matelas, Sylvie a dormi d’un sommeil de plomb. (After buying a new mattress, Sylvie slept like a stone.)
To sleep on the streets.
Literally, this means “to sleep under the bridges”, which many homeless people in Paris did in bygone days, and sometimes still do. Example : Depuis qu’il a perdu tout son argent, Jacques dort sous les ponts. (Ever since losing his money, Jacques has slept on the streets.)
An informal way to say someone is completely exhausted, worn out, beat. Example: Je n’en peux plus – je suis crevé ! (I can’t do anymore – I’m worn out!). Crever is an interesting word. It essentially means “to burst”, but in informal language it can signify exhaustion or even death.
To sleep in/sleep late/have a lie-in.
Literally translated, this expression means “to make the fat morning.” Example : Ils ne viendront pas pour le petit-déjeuner au restaurant demain ; ils comptent faire la grasse matinée. (They won’t come to breakfast at the restaurant tomorrow; they’re planning to sleep in.)
A childish way to say “go to sleep”. Dodo is derived from the verb dormir. Example: Allez les enfants, c’est l’heure de faire dodo ! (Let’s go children, it’s time to go night-night!)
To take a nap.
A lack of sleep.
This can also be used as a phrase with the verb manquer.
Example: Selon un sondage, la moitié des Français souffriraient d’un manque de sommeil. (According to a survey, half the French population is suffering from a lack of sleep.)
The Sandman came by.
In other words, someone/everyone has fallen asleep. For more on the marchand de sable, see the section on sleep-related characters.
Essentially, “transport, job, sleep”, this common expression evokes the everyday routine.
To sleep with one eye open. In other words, to sleep lightly so as to be aware of your surroundings.
Example : Malgré la fatigue, je n’ai dormi que d’un œil. (I slept with one eye open despite being tired.)
A night person/night owl.
Example : Céline se demandait souvent si sa vie serait plus facile si elle n’était pas noctambule. (Céline often wondered if her life would be easier if she wasn’t a night person.)
Another word for a night person/night owl, often with the implication that this person likes to spend the night at parties and clubs.
To stay up all night (literally, “to spend a white night.”).
This can be a choice: J’ai du mal à me concentrer aujourd’hui ; on s’est tous retrouvés pour une soirée chez Denis et finalement on y a passé une nuit blanche. (I’m having trouble concentrating today; last night we all got together at Denis’s house and ended up staying up all night.), or it can be involuntary: J’étais tellement inquiète que j’ai passé une nuit blanche. (I was so worried that I couldn’t sleep.)
You might also see the expression Nuit Blanche if you’re in Paris in early October. Every year around this time, there’s one night where a lot of different events (mostly concerts and art installations) take place throughout the city, from dark until dawn. The frequently surreal ambiance makes it feel like you’re in a dream.
An informal way to say “to take a nap” (somme is short for sommeil (sleep)).
Example : Nous étions trop crevés après cette nuit blanche, donc nous avons piqué un somme. (We’re beat after staying up all night — let’s go take a nap.)
He/She who sleeps, eats. In other words, when you sleep, you don’t feel hunger.
This expression may seem Hans Christian Andersen-level sad, but I’ve heard it used in non-serious contexts.
For example, when I was a student in Paris, I rented a room in an elderly French couple’s house. The man often dozed in his chair in the evenings. One day, he woke up and told me jokingly, Qui dort dîne. Comme ca, j’évite de devenir obèse. (He who sleeps, eats. This way, I won’t get fat.)
Example : Tu ronfles si fort que je peux t’entendre de l’autre bout de la maison ! (You snore so loudly that I can hear you all the way across the house!)
If you call someone a sleepwalker, don’t forget the rule in French that defining someone in some way means dropping the article: Ne t’inquiète pas si tu entends des pas dans le couloir cette nuit – Charles est somnambule. (Don’t worry if you hear footsteps in the hallway tonight – Charles is a sleepwalker.)
Sleepy vs sexy: The two most common sleep-related verbs in French — and a major faux pas you can make with them
When talking about sleep (le sommeil) in French, you’ll probably have to use one of these verbs:
They can be used interchangeably in many cases but be careful if you’re talking about sleeping with someone/something!
In English, the expression “sleep with” can be totally innocent – for example, “I sleep with the light on,” or “She sleeps with her teddy bear.” But if the context isn’t clear, it usually takes on a sexual connotation. The same is the case for coucher.
In fact, there are a number of expressions with coucher that suggest a person is doing more than sleeping:
Sleep (have intercourse) together.
Example: Tu ne savais pas ? Ils couchent ensemble depuis au moins un an. (You didn’t know? They’ve been sleeping together for at least a year.)
To sleep one’s way to the top.
Example : Je me demande si Jeannette mérite vraiment cette promotion, ou si elle a couché pour réussir. (I wonder if Jeannette really deserves this promotion, or if she is sleeping her way to the top.)
To sleep around.
Example : Thierry semble pudique, mais il couche à droite et à gauche. (Thierry seems prudish, but he sleeps around.)
But coucher doesn’t just imply sexual intercourse. There are many ways to use this word that don’t imply that at all. Some common non-sexy sleep words related to coucher include:
- Couche-tard -- A night owl (literally translated, “go-to-bed-late”).
- Couche-tôt – Someone who goes to bed early (literally translated, “go-to-bed-early”)
Example: Si tu es couche-tôt, il vaut mieux ne pas dormir chez Françoise. Elle a un studio et elle est couche-tard. (If you go to bed early, it’s best not to sleep at Francoise’s. She has a studio apartment and is a night owl.)
A sleeping bag.
Apart from these expressions, though, if you want to be certain you’re using coucher in an innocent sense, do it as a reflexive verb. For example, Je me couche toujours à 23h. (I always go to bed at 11pm.) or Dis donc! Vous vous couchez vachement tard ! (Say, you guys go to bed bloody late!)
But what if you want to talk about someone sleeping with someone/something in a totally innocent way? In this case, use dormir avec.
For example, earlier in this article, I mentioned that I sleep with my cat. To express that in French, I would say Je dors avec mon chat. If I said, Je couche avec mon chat, the police would be at my door, since bestiality is illegal in France!
Sleep-related French characters
Just about every culture has its myths and beliefs about sleep. Like several of them, French has le marchand de sable (sand merchant – Sandman in English). This is a man who sprinkles sand to make people (especially children) close their eyes and fall asleep. The character originated in an early 19th century story by Hoffmann, butt the idea of sand being in one’s eyes after sleep goes back much further.
Although I’ve said the French aren’t as sleep-focused as some other cultures are, they are also at the origin of yet another famous sleeper: La belle au bois dormant-- Sleeping Beauty. With roots in medieval French folktales, the version of her story that we know best today has its origins in a 17th century fairytale by Charles Perrault.
Talking about sleep in French can involve some imaginative and very accurate vocabulary. How do you match up with French sleep statistics? Can you use some of these words and phrases to describe how you sleep?