9 unique, untranslatable French words

What are the most unique French words? French has many beautiful, funny, and otherwise memorable words, and some of them have no exact, single-word equivalent in other languages.

Let’s discover nine of these unique, untranslatable French words.

9 unique and untranslatable French words

View looking down a white marble spiral staircase with a black and wood colored bannister. The floor on which the photographer is standing is black and white checkered marble.

Here are 9 unique and untranslatable words that you’ll often come across in French.

dépaysant 

Literally “de-countrying”, dépaysant is a single word you can use to describe a disorienting, or totally new experience. It can also be used to describe a feeling about a place, even if it’s in your own country.

Keep in mind that because it’s an adjective, dépaysant has to agree in gender and number with the word(s) it’s modifying, so it could be written dépaysant, dépaysante, dépaysants, or dépaysantes, depending.

Dépaysant is such a handy word that in French it has many derivatives, including a verb form (dépayser), a reflexive verb form, (se dépayser), and a noun form (dépaysement).

Example: Le film <<Le Voyage de Chihiro>> est féerique et totalement dépaysant. (The movie “Spirited Away” is magical and totally transports you to another place.)

un flâneur 

Un flâneur is someone who strolls around a place (especially a city), observing the sights and people around them, without any other seeming purpose but to do this.

The concept of the flâneur (or, at least, celebrating it) really came into fashion in 19th century France, with the likes of Charles Baudelaire being dubbed one. The word has been borrowed into several languages, including English.

I highly recommend Wikipedia’s eloquent entry if you’d like to learn more about the fascinating history of flâneur as both a word and a concept.

Note that in French, flâneur is normally used for men, and passante is often used for women (although the context is different, merely that of a passerby). But a feminine form, flâneuse, has existed since the start of the 21st century and is sometimes used. In English, however, flâneur can also be used for women.

There’s also a verb form, flâner, but this isn’t strictly associated with the flâneur concept, and can just mean “to stroll.”

Example: C’est un vrai flâneur, qui connaît l’âme de tous les quartiers de la ville. (He’s a true flâneur, who knows the soul of every neighborhood in the city.)

bouquiner 

Bouquiner could best be translated as “to read in a cozy and/or time-consuming but pleasant way”.

Although you may see the equivalent of bouquiner listed as “to read” in English, it’s so much more than that. Its rough equivalent is really something more like “to be lost in a good book” or “to curl up with a good book”.

As a bookworm (or, in French, un rat de bibliothèque — yes, a library rat), bouquiner is my favorite word on our list. Not only does it describe one of my favorite things to do – it does it in a cozy way, using bouquin, an informal word for “book” that also doesn’t really have an English equivalent, as its root.

Example: J’ai passé tout le weekend à bouquiner. (I spent all weekend curled up with a good book.)

voilà 

Voilà means “Here it is, There it is, Here you go/There you go/It’s finished!”

Lots of languages have some kind of equivalent of voilà, but I’m not sure that any have just one word that can also be used for so many subtle shades of the same idea. That’s probably why voilà has been borrowed into so many other languages.

If you’re intrigued by this versatile word, feel free to check out our article on the many meanings and uses of voilà.

Example: Je cherchais mon chat et puis le voilà ! Il s’était caché dans notre sapin de Noël. (I was looking for my cat and then – there he was! He’d hidden himself inside our Christmas tree.)

bricolage 

Bricolage is fixing things up/doing DIY

Bricolage seems like it would have a single word equivalent, but it doesn’t. The same goes for its masculin and feminine noun forms, bricoleur and bricoleuse (someone who likes to tinker, work on home improvement, do DIY).

These terms are extremely common in French and are fairly informal. There’s even a home improvement store chain delightfully called Monsieur Bricolage.

But note that these terms don’t necessarily mean the person doing the work is good at it! Un bricoleur de dimanche (Sunday Mr. Fix-It) means someone who does small renovation or fix-it projects on the weekends and probably isn’t an expert.

Example: Ce weekend on va faire du bricolage. (This weekend we’re going to do some home improvement projects.)

chez 

Chez has many meanings, most notably “to/at the house of/with”.

Chez is a common French preposition – and no wonder since it’s so versatile. Like voilà, it’s even been adopted into some other languages.

Here’s a single sentence that shows three ways chez can be used. Note that this is just for demonstration purposes; in general, the French avoid repetition, so they’d try to rephrase this:

Elle habite chez sa mère et comme la colère est très courant chez sa mère, elle est à la recherche d’un chez elle. (She lives at her mother’s house and since anger is frequent component of her mother’s personality, she’s looking for a home of her own.)

You can check WordReference to find even more ways chez is used.

Bon courage 

Bon courage means “Hang in there.”

It’s similar to the expression Bonne chance (Good luck), but it’s more of a rally cry in hard times. The rough English equivalent, “Hang in there”, is informal, but Bon courage works in pretty much any situation.

l’esprit de l’escalier 

Literally “wit of the staircase/staircase wit”, l’esprit de l’escalier is one of the most famous untranslatable French phrases. In just a few words , it describes the moment when you think of the perfect remark or rejoinder…long after you should have said it.

The phrase is rich in imagery: you’re on the staircase just after you’ve left the room where you should have made that amazing witticism and you can’t go back and say it now!

Example: <<The Comeback>>, un épisode de la série Seinfeld, tourne autour de l’esprit de l’escalier. (The Seinfeld episode “The Comeback” is about thinking of the perfect retort too late.)

déjà-vu 

Déjà-vu is the eerie sensation of feeling like you’ve been somewhere/seen something/done something before even when there’s no evidence that you ever have.

This term, which literally means “already seen”, has been adopted into a number of other languages.

Note that in French, déjà-vu can also be used to mean “something that’s already been seen before (and is thus boring or unimpressive)”. This meaning of déjà-vu is often a part of a common phrase: C’est du déjà-vu. (This has already been seen/done before.)

Example: En entrant dans la maison, j’ai eu un fort sentiment de déjà-vu. (When I entered the house, I had a strong feeling of déjà-vu.)

Are these French words really untranslatable?

A row of books. We see the opposite side of their spines, so just their pages.

Considering that there are more than 7000 languages spoken in the world today, and many others that were spoken in the past, maybe there is an exact equivalent for each word on our list somewhere.

You might also argue that none of the words on our list are a concept totally unique to the French language or culture. We’ve all thought of the perfect witty remark just as we left the conversation where we needed it. We all know that person (or maybe you are  that person) who loves to tinker around and fix things. But the French language just happens to have a neat, short, single word or expression for these concepts, rather than a longer explanation.

So, while these concepts may be universal, there’s no single exact equivalent word for them in any other language (that we know of). With this in mind, let’s say that the words on are list are, for all intents and purposes, unique and untranslatable.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of unique, untranslatable French words. Do you have a favorite one? Feel free to share it in the comments!

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.