Advanced French Vocabulary for Book Lovers: A 20-word List from Camus’s “L’Hôte”

Sometimes, it’s hard to jump from children’s books and young adult novels to bonafide French literature.

The gap is often tough to jump purely because of a lack of advanced French vocabulary.

It naturally follows that the best advanced French vocab list out there would be one of words taken from a piece of writing that ties them all together.

So, if you don’t feel quite ready for novels, why not find your advanced vocab lists through short stories?


Tips for Keeping Your Advanced French Vocabulary on Lock

Oh? So we’re just supposed to read short stories and that’s it? Unfortunately, only a select few people have the amazing talent of looking at something once and remembering it forever. Most of us need tools to turn the French words on the page into something you can recycle later and use casually in conversation.

So here are a few useful variations on the good old vocab list.


This is a classic method. You may have fond memories of using them in French courses or maybe on your own to prepare for a Francophone trip. But thanks to modern technology, you don’t necessarily have to buy a bulk pack of index cards and get marker smears all over your fingertips.

Electronic flashcard apps make it easy for you to make flashcards without the pen-and-paper grunt work. Or, you can use an immersion program like FluentU to build multimedia flashcard decks with content from authentic French videos. You can then review these words with personalized quizzes. But whether you’re using an app or index cards, the whole point is that they’re convenient to take with you and perfect for on the go.

Words that you come across while reading can make for great flashcard vocabulary lists. If you’re going to do it old-school, remember that color coding your words into categories (noun, verb and adjective), and drawing special symbols on cards to remember masculine or feminine, can make learning them that much easier and that much more fun.

The “20 words a week” method

Pace yourselves, guys.

Please, whatever you do, don’t make 200 flashcards and then force yourself to go through all of them in a week. It’s not going to happen. You need to be spending your precious French-learning energy on more than just flashcards (watching French films is clearly more fun), so don’t spend all of your time on them.

Give yourself around 10-15 minutes a day, but only 15-20 words a week. I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but you’re likely to retain all 20 words, and you’re only spending a little more than an hour a week.

A lot of vocabulary you’ll pick up naturally, so try concentrating your flashcard energy on increasing reading comprehension (take 20 words from a short story you didn’t understand and then make a list, like we’ll do in a quick moment). Just don’t go overboard!

The “categorize by topic” method

It’s a lot easier to learn vocabulary if all of the words are related. A completely random list, not tied to any reading text, topic or food group (because you know learning food words is important for good eating in France), is going to be more difficult to memorize. When you stick to, say, all the vocabulary you need for going camping, then you have a context. You can make practice sentences easily or find additional articles, films, etc., to enforce that vocabulary.

Challenge yourself with topics that you struggle with. If you’re having trouble thinking of something, try picking an article from Le Monde and go from there!

The “just keep reading” method

Remember when you were a kid, and you tried to pick up a book that was too big for your britches? There were a lot of words you probably had to look up, or maybe being a kid, you just gave up.

But now, you can probably read just about anything in English with ease. Think of yourself as that kid again. Did you learn all of those literary words by going through flashcards for two hours a day? Well…maybe you did…but likely not.

You just kept reading.

So just keep reading those French books and stories. You may not understand every word, but when you’re reading a tenth book in a French series, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll understand more than you did in Book One. That’s the magic of reading.

We’ve already discussed why short stories are perfect for the advanced learner. Now for some recommendations!

Amazing Short Stories to Learn Vocabulary With

The nice thing about short stories is that…they’re short. Wow, way to state the obvious. You can:

  • Read them once.
  • Write down vocabulary you didn’t understand.
  • Make a few flashcards.
  • Read them again, understand more and really enjoy them.

This is a lot harder to do with a full-length book. Plus, you can totally do the above with one short story a week, without going completely crazy from self-assigned French homework. So before we jump into our featured presentation, here are a few more famous French short stories to get you started.

“La Parure” (“The Necklace”) by Guy de Maupassant

First of all, Maupassant is a treasure trove for great French short stories. In fact, he’s one of the people responsible for crafting short stories the way we know them today. He’s got loads of stories to test your vocabulary skills with. Let’s just say you have to scroll for a good moment on Wikipedia to see his list of “notable” shorts.

“La Parure” is about a woman who thinks that she deserves jewels and basically whatever her heart desires, but she’s married to your average Joe of a clerk, who, bless his little heart, tries really hard to make her happy. Well, to avoid giving anything else away, let’s just say the story is about greed and financial woes. Oh, but it has a twist! Did I mention that Maupassant is basically like a 19th-century French M. Night Shyamalan?

“Les Révoltés de la Bounty” (“The Mutineers of the Bounty”) by Jules Verne

If you have any kind of learning towards science-fiction, then you’ve likely dabbled in reading some Jules Verne already—maybe a bit of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” or “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”? Well, you’ve at least seen the movies, I’m sure. If you’re ready to transition to some original-language Verne, then start with his short stories, and if they’re easier than you thought, go for one of his novels!

“Les Révoltés de la Bounty” is based on the events of a…mutiny on a British ship called the…Bounty. Anyway, it’s all about adventure and is actually part of a series of stories by Verne called “Voyages extraordinaires” (“The Extraordinary Adventures”), so I guess it’ll be pretty extraordinary, too.

“La Morte amoureuse” (“The Dead Woman in Love”) by Théophile Gautier

Something of a post-Renaissance Renaissance man, Gautier dipped his toes into novels, poems, short stories and criticism. A writer from the school of Romanticism, he brushed elbows with the likes of Victor Hugo and Gérard de Nerval.

“La Morte amoureuse” is, in fact, part of a long literary tradition: vampires! Basically, the gist of this story is that a priest falls in love with a beautiful woman, who…wait for it…is totally a vampire. I’m not spoiling anything; the title pretty much already gave that away.

“L’Auberge rouge” (“The Red Inn”) by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac made it his business to paint an honest portrayal of society after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. As he was one of the founders of the realism movement in literature, you may have read ripples of his writing in the works of Charles Dickens or Henry James. Not only is this guy an amazing writer to pick up if you’re looking for some great French novels, but he also wrote plays and of course short stories (hence why this short story is in this post). Balzac is a cornerstone of French literature, and well, just literature while we’re at it.

“L’Auberge rouge” is a little more on the creepy side for Balzac, taking place at a dinner party where someone tells a spooky story.

And now for the main event!

Learn French with Camus: A 20-word Advanced Vocabulary List from “L’Hôte”

You may be familiar with the name. That’s because Camus is one of the most famous French authors of all time. Whether you’ve read a translation or the original version in French, he always makes for an interesting read. He won a Nobel Prize, for Pete’s sake!

Now, we’re going to take all that talk about how to learn vocabulary with literature and actually put some action to it. If you really like this story and are looking for a longer text, then “L’Étranger” (“The Stranger”) is amazing and not too difficult of a read for people starting on long-form French literature.

This story, “L’Hôte” (“The Guest”), is about a French schoolteacher, Daru, who watches two men climb towards the schoolhouse where he teaches (in French Algeria). When the two men arrive, Daru is informed that he is to take one of the men (a prisoner of the other) to the police. After initially refusing, he agrees to do so and takes the prisoner in. But it soon becomes clear that Daru is not totally against letting this guy get away. And as for the rest…

You can buy the story as part of this great dual-text collection, which gives you several more short stories to continue with your advanced vocab learning!

You can also check it out online here—just be aware there are some typos in this version. However, for the sake of you being able to quickly locate words in the text, I’ll refer to the numbered lines in the linked PDF file.

Here’s a list of words plucked from the story that are both useful in reading and everyday French life.

1. Entamer 

Let’s get started. No really, this verb means “to start on.” So get started on studying this vocabulary list…or else.

Camus’ usage (line 3): 

Ils n’avaient pas encore entamé le raidillon abrupt qui menait à l’école, bâtie au flanc d’une colline.
(They had not yet started on the slope leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside.)

Everyday usage:

Je vais entamer mes devoirs ce soir.
(I’m going to start on my homework tonight.)

2. Le raidillon

It’s an easy stroll down the slope from here! Okay, I won’t make silly jokes on every vocabulary word, but un raidillon is in fact a slope. This vocabulary word is especially useful if you live in the hills.

Camus’ usage (line 3):

Ils n’avaient pas encore entamé le raidillon abrupt qui menait à l’école, bâtie au flanc d’une colline.
(They had not yet started on the slope leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside.)

Everyday usage:

Le raidillon là-bas est parfait pour faire du skateboard.
(The slope over there is perfect for skateboarding.)

3. Peiner 

Meaning: to struggle. Feel free to use this for every struggle in your struggle book from French vocabulary to accidentally leaving the TV remote in the kitchen. Life is hard, so remember this verb.

Camus’ usage (line 4):

Ils peinaient, progressant lentement dans la neige...
(They struggled, progressing slowly in the snow…)

Everyday usage:

Je peine à me réveiller le matin.
(I struggle to get up in the morning.)

4. Apercevoir

To catch sight of, to glimpse. When voir (to see) is just too straightforward for your flowery advanced French language skills, get this irregular verb up in your vocab.

Camus’ usage (line 21):

Par temps clair, on pouvait apercevoir les masses violettes du contrefort montagneux où s’ouvrait la porte du désert.
(In the clear weather, one could see the purple mass of the mountain range where the gap opened onto the desert.)

Everyday usage:

Si tu vas en Californie, tu apercevras des célébrités.
(If you go to California, you will catch sight of celebrities.)

5. Valoir

Is this really worth all the trouble? Shh! Of course it is. Valoir means “to be worth.” Use it to talk about how many expensive treasures you have in your closet or use it more figuratively like in the example below.

Camus’ usage (line 28):

Mais cela valait mieux que ces trois jours où l’épaisse neige tombait au milieu des ténèbres incessantes…
(But still this was worth more than those three days when the thick snow was falling amidst unbroken darkness…)

Everyday usage:

Cette bague vaut plus que ta maison. (This ring is worth more than your house.)

6. D’ailleurs

Need more French filler words than donc and alors? Look no further than this favorite. It means literally “from elsewhere,” but you can use it to say “by the way,” “moreover” or “besides.”

Camus’ usage (line 36):

Il avait d’ailleurs de quoi soutenir un siège.
(Besides, he had enough to resist a siege.)

Everyday usage:

D’ailleurs, tu as quelque chose entre tes dents.
(By the way, you have something between your teeth.)

7. Errant

Ah, dreams of travel, that bohemian nomadic lifestyle. Whether you’re using this adjective to describe you and your international adventures or your eccentric aunt who moves around in her RV every two weeks, errant means nomadic or wandering and comes from the present participle of the verb errer (to wander).

Camus’ usage (line 45):

…cette armée de fantômes haillonneux errant dans le soleil…
(…that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight…)

Everyday usage:

Je rêve de la vie errante.
(I dream of the nomadic life.)

8. La détente

Time to get a little political. There will come a time when you need to talk politics. Une détente is like the relaxation of political tension. Alternatively, it’s when something physically relaxes. It also can translate to mean a gun trigger. Though Camus forgoes all of these in this example, and uses the word figuratively to describe constant rain.

Camus’ usage (line 53):

Et, tout d’un coup, cette neige, sans avertissement, sans la détente de la pluie.
(And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the ceasing of rain.)

Everyday usage:

On espère qu’un jour on aura une détente entre tous les pays.
(One hopes that one day there will be a relaxation of tension between all the countries.)

9. Ainsi

You’ve probably seen this word thrown around once or twice, but kept forgetting to look it up. Ainsi means “like this” or “in this way,” making it a great word to get bossy with.

Camus’ usage (line 54):

Le pays était ainsi, cruel à vivre…
(This is the way the region was, cruel to live in…)

Everyday usage:

Il faut danser ainsi.
(One must dance like so.)

10. Paraître

Like its slightly easier-to-pronounce synonym sembler, paraître means to seem like or to appear to be. Seems pretty useful to me (heh heh).

Camus’ usage (line 108):

Ça bouge, paraît-il.
(Things are moving, it appears.)

Everyday usage: 

Cela paraît étrange de manger le petit déjeuner pendant la nuit, mais j’aime bien.
(It seems strange to eat breakfast during the night, but I like it.)

11. Une lame

Hopefully the word “blade” isn’t in your vocabulary a whole lot, not unless you work in a kitchen…or a…knife store? But you’ll see it a bit in literature, especially if you like adventure novels!

Camus’ usage (line 134):

Balducci fit le geste de passer une lame sur sa gorge et l’Arabe…
(Balducci made the gesture of drawing a blade across his throat and the Arab…)

Everyday usage:

Ne joue jamais avec une lame !
(Never play with a blade!)

12. Craindre

If you’re looking to say you’re afraid, you’ve got two options: avoir peur de and craindreThe latter is easier to throw around once you’ve got the conjugation figured out.

Camus’ usage (line 153):

Pourquoi ? Je n’ai rien à craindre.
(Why? I have nothing to fear.)

Everyday usage:

Je crains d’oublier tous ces mots.
(I’m afraid of forgetting all these words.)

13. À l’abri

It’s a twister! Get under cover! It’s a monster! Get to safety! Basically à l’abri means “under cover,” in case I didn’t make that clear with all of my exclamations.

Camus’ usage (line 154):

S’ils se soulèvent, personne n’est à l’abri, nous sommes tous dans le même sac.
(If there’s an uprising, no one is safe, we’re all in the same boat.)

Everyday usage:

Il arrive, tout le monde trouve un endroit à l’abri(He’s coming, everyone find a place under cover!)

14. Faire des bêtises

I see what you’re getting up to over there. You’re getting into mischief, acting a fool, making a mess. Essentially, the blanket phrase here in French is faire des bêtises

Camus’ usage (line 169):

Tu fais des bêtises, dit-il lentement.
(You’re making a mistake, he said slowly.)

Everyday usage:

Elle mange le riz avec un couteau. Elle fait des bêtises !
(She’s eating the rice with a knife. She’s being foolish!)

15. Se diriger (vers)

So, the verb diriger means to move, to guide or to manage. But the reflexive of this verb, which sometimes includes the preposition vers (around) in its construction, means to head for or to move towards.

Camus’ usage (line 185):

Puis il se dirigea vers la porte.
(Then he headed for the door.)

Everyday usage:

Elle criait, alors je me suis dirigé(e) vers la sortie.
(She was screaming, so I headed for the exit.)

16. Fuir

Run for the hills! Flee! Hopefully you’ll read this more than speak it, but hey, you never know if you’ll need some of these vocabulary words for a future career as un espion (a spy).

Camus’ usage (line 216):

Il s’étonna de cette joie franche qui lui venait à la seule pensée que l’Arabe avait pu fuir et qu’il allait se retrouver seul sans avoir rien à décider.
(He was amazed at the unmixed joy he derived from the mere thought that the Arab might have fled and that he would be alone with no decision to make.)

Everyday usage:

Les abeilles ! Il faut fuir !
(The bees! We must flee!)

17. Gémir

We’re almost done, so quit your moaning and whining! The verb gémir in French means to moan or whine, but this is referring to the sound you make when you’re feeling pain, not when you’re complaining that you don’t want to eat your kale.

Camus’ usage (line 290):

L’Arabe se retourna sur le côté, présentant le dos à Daru et celui-ci crut l’entendre gémir.
(The Arab turned over on his side with his back to Daru, who thought he heard him moan.)

Everyday usage:

Il a gémi quand il a vu qu’il était quatre heures du matin. (He moaned when he saw that it was four in the morning.)

18. Furtif 

Technically, furtive is an English word as well. It’s not a super-common one, but all the same. In either French or English, it means to be stealthy or secretive (more spy vocabulary).

Camus’ usage (line 316):

Plus tard encore, il lui sembla entendre, du fond de son sommeil, des pas furtifs autour de l’école.
(Still later he seemed, from the depths of his sleep, to hear stealthy steps around the schoolhouse.)

Everyday usage:

Nous avons besoin de quelqu’un de furtif pour notre équipe.
(We need someone stealthy for our team.)

19. Une calotte

The formal French version and the informal version of this noun are vastly different. Formally, it’s a skull cap, more specifically, the Belgian kind. Informally, it’s a slap on the head. I wonder which you’ll use more often? Hmm. Though Camus uses the formal version, it’s figurative, so watch out for that.

Camus’ usage (line 363):

Une sorte d’exaltation naissait en lui devant le grand espace familier, presque entièrement jaune maintenant, sous sa calotte de ciel bleu.
(He felt a sort of rapture before the vast familiar expanse, now almost entirely yellow under its dome of blue sky.)

Everyday usage:

Sa mère n’aime pas quand elle donne une calotte à son frère.
(Her mom doesn’t like when she hits her brother [on the head]).

20. Nouer 

And now to wrap it up, tie up loose ends, put a knot in it, we have nouer, which means to tie or make a knot.

Camus’ usage (line 388):

Daru sentit sa gorge se nouer.
(Daru felt his throat knot up.)

Everyday usage:

Il ne peut pas nouer ses chaussures ?
(He can’t tie his shoes?)


Now you have something to go on.

Remember that you can pull a vocabulary list from most French content, like short stories, novels, TV shows, radio or magazine articles.

As an advanced French learner, it’s your job to learn all the words.

Every. Last. One.

Well, maybe not to that extreme, but you get the idea.

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