Now that you’ve got your grammar down pat, we can bring back the excitement and challenge of your beginner and intermediate days with some obscure and challenging vocabulary.
In this post, we’ll look at a list of truly grown-up French words, ranging from the tricky, to the slightly naughty, to the very, very French.
On y go (an English-inflected French neologism of on y va, or “let’s go”)!
- French verbs you don’t see that often (but that could very well come in handy)
- Unusual French words (that roll off the tongue)
- Difficult-to-pronounce French words (that roll off the tongue less easily)
- Very French words!
- Words that can be hard for English speakers to keep straight
- Resources to Learn Advanced French Words
French verbs you don’t see that often (but that could very well come in handy)
1. affubler (indirect, transitive)
- To get up in, to deck oneself out in (referring to an article or articles of clothing). Instead of using habiller (to dress) or s’habiller (to dress oneself), why not add a bit more color to your French and test out affubler?
Marie affublait sa petite fille de robe de princesse pour aller au cinéma.
(Marie decked her little girl out in a princess dress to go to the movie theater.)
- To ridicule. This secondary definition of affubler is the more metaphorical, abstract version of the first. Instead of dressing someone (or oneself) in clothing, it refers to “dressing someone up” with a moniker that is demeaning.
Je n’oserais pas vous affubler d’un tel qualificatif.
(I wouldn’t dare call you such a thing.)
“Such a thing” here could be along the lines of “doofus,” “jerk,” etc.
2. déroger (transitive)
- To depart from, to contravene the status quo (or the official terms that have been set). France is often referred to as the land of bureaucracy and déroger is the type of word you’re bound to come across in the small print of a registration form or other official document in the context of law.
La loi ne peut pas déroger aux dispositions du Pacte.
(The law cannot depart from the provisions of the agreement.)
3. écoper (transitive)
- To bail out water (from a boat).
Les marins ont dû écoper l’eau de leur bateau pour ne pas couler.
(The sailors had to bail out water from their boat in order to not sink.)
- To get, to receive. In this case, écoper almost always refers to a penalty or a punishment, like a fine.
Le conducteur a écopé une amende de 85 dollars pour un excès de vitesse.
(The driver received an 85 dollar fine for going over the speed limit.)
4. émoustiller (transitive)
- To excite, to render playful. Émoustiller is most often used in the context of taste or other sensory pleasures, as in Émoustillez vos papilles ! which literally translates to “Excite your taste buds!” or “Whet your appetite!”
Le champagne émoustilla les invités.
(The champagne excited/loosened up the guests.)
- Aside from its primary definition, émoustiller can also be used in the context of that other kind of excitement (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), meaning to titillate or to arouse.
Frédéric n’avait pas manqué l’opportunité d’émoustiller les rares femmes présentes au travail.
(Frédéric never missed the opportunity to arouse the few women present at work.)
Unusual French words (that roll off the tongue)
5. colimaçon (noun, feminine)
- Escargot or snail. You can use colimaçon as you would escargot—when talking about gardening, your greatest fears…but when you’re visiting Notre Dame while traveling through France, wow your tour guide by referencing son escalier en colimaçon (spiral staircase).
6. abnégation (noun, feminine)
- Self-denial, self-sacrifice.
Collette mène son travail de recherche avec beaucoup d’abnégation. Sept jours sur sept, elle se lève à 5h et se couche à minuit.
(Collette is undertaking her research with a lot of self-denial. Seven days a week, she wakes up at 5 in the morning and goes to bed at midnight.)
7. rocambolesque (adjective)
- Fantastic, extraordinary, unbelievable.
Stella décrit l’expérience unique, parfois rocambolesque mais toujours passionnante que représente la vie d’une cinéaste allemande en France.
(Stella describes the unique, sometimes unbelievable, but always passionate life of a German filmmaker in France.)
8. abracadabrant (adjective)
- Bizarre, weird, befuddling. This word is a derivative of the magical incantation “Abracadabra.” I don’t know about you, but I love words that sound like what they mean.
Cette histoire est abracadabrante !
(This story is bizarre!)
9. abracadabrantesque (adjective)
- Ludicrous, incredible (as in lacking credibility). A riff off abracadabrant, this is a neologism first used by Arthur Rimbaud and later resuscitated by President Jacques Chirac in a television interview in the year 2000, in reference to accusations of misuse of public funds during his presidency. His exact words were:
Je suis indigné par le procédé, par le mensonge, par l’outrance. Il doit y avoir des limites à la calomnie. Aujourd’hui, on rapporte une histoire abracadabrantesque.
“I am outraged by the behavior (of those here), by the lies, by the excess. There must be limits to slander. Today, we’re brought back to a preposterous story.”
Today, abracadabrantesque is used rather playfully in place of abracadabrant, as a sort of clin d’œil (wink) to a very memorable French political scandal.
10. boursouflé (adjective)
- Swollen, puffed up.
Arnaud a fait une réaction allergique, il a la bouche boursouflée.
(Arnaud had an allergic reaction; his mouth is swollen.)
11. exécrable (adjective)
- Detestable, appalling, heinous.
L’homme a été condamné à l’enfermement à perpétuité pour ses crimes exécrables.
(The man was sentenced to life imprisonment for his heinous crimes.)
Mes enfants sont exécrables quand ils ne font pas la sieste.
(My children are obnoxious when they don’t take a nap.)
Difficult-to-pronounce French words (that roll off the tongue less easily)
While these three words aren’t super complicated in and of themselves, they are total tongue twisters—they can be ridiculously hard to pronounce!
12. serrurerie (noun, feminine)
- Locksmith’s trade, locksmithing.
Les serrures sont des pièces de serrurerie.
(Locks are locksmithing items.)
Try saying this three times fast!
13. quincaillerie (noun, feminine)
- Hardware store.
Tu n’as qu’à aller à la quincaillerie pour acheter de la peinture.
(All you have to do is go to the hardware store to buy paint.)
- Cheap jewelry, trinket (usually metal).
Dimanche dernier nous avons trouvé pas mal de quincaillerie au vide grenier.
(Last Sunday, we found quite a few trinkets at the yard sale.)
14. parallélépipède (noun, masculine)
- Parallelepiped or a solid whose six faces are parallelograms. I know, I know, this isn’t a math blog, but I couldn’t resist throwing this one in for good measure, so to speak.
Le volume du bâtiment est constitué d’un simple parallélépipède recouvert de panneaux préfabriqués.
(The volume of the building consists of a parallelepiped covered with prefabricated panels.)
Very French words!
15. argotique (adjective)
- Slangy. Argot is French for “slang.” Argotique is its adjectival form.
Thomas utilise un langage argotique et parfois j’ai du mal à comprendre ce qu’il dit.
(Thomas uses slangy language and sometimes I have trouble understanding what he says.)
16. bisounours (noun, masculine/feminine)
- Naive. The connotation is rather pejorative and condescending. A contraction of bisou (kiss) and nournours (teddy bear), bisounours was originally used as the French name for the Care Bears franchise (remember Care Bears?!). It has since made its way into everyday life.
On n’est pas au pays des bisounours !
(We’re not in la-la land! / Get real!)
17. contrée (noun, feminine)
- Region, land. This word is reserved for the literary register. It’s more “Madame Bovary” than Elle magazine.
Au printemps, cette contrée revêt un tout autre caractère.
(In spring, the land takes on a whole new character.)
18. déculotter (verb, transitive)
- Leave it to French to have a verb that literally translates to taking off someone’s underwear, or “to pants” someone. In reality, though, it means to defeat in an embarrassing or flagrant way.
Marc s’est fait déculotter par Marie quand elle a exposé ses mensonges.
(Marc was embarrassed by Marie when she exposed his lies.)
19. imberbe (adjective)
- Beardless, bare-faced, a concise way of saying sans barbe (without a beard). This can also be used in a more figurative way to talk about someone (usually a guy) who’s young and naive.
Depuis son retour d’Allemagne, Charles est imberbe.
(Since his return from Germany, Charles is clean-shaven.)
20. kyrielle (noun, feminine)
- Plethora, host, multitude, bunch.
Le répertoire présente toute une kyrielle d’exemples de stratégies fructueuses.
(The inventory offers a plethora of examples of successful strategies.)
21. œnologie (noun, feminine)
- The science of winemaking. (Did you really think you’d get through this post without a wine mention?) A true amateur (lover) of wine will know that an œnologue (a winemaker) is not the same thing as a sommelier, a wine steward who is responsible for wine service, and works to help restaurants develop wine lists and create food and wine pairings.
Après ses études d’œnologie, François Raget a accepté de diriger l’entreprise familiale.
(Upon completion of his studies in winemaking, François Raget agreed to run the family business.)
Words that can be hard for English speakers to keep straight
22. argentique (adjective)
- Literally translates to “silvery” and refers to photographs or photographic practice with rolls of film. In short: Not digital, analogue.
Mon professor d’art est de la vieille-école. Il ne fait que la photographie argentique.
(My art teacher is old school. He only does analogue photography.)
23. digital (adjective)
- Relating to fingers. This is a faux ami that always trips up 21st century French learners.
Le dossier contient nos empreintes digitales.
(The file contains our fingerprints.)
24. numérique (adjective)
- Digital, as in digital technology. So going back to my earlier photography example, un appareil photo numérique (not digital) refers to a digital camera. Whew.
Nous vivons dans l’ère numérique.
(We live in the digital era.)
Resources to Learn Advanced French Words
After going through this list, you might be looking for some ways to practice these words. Get started with these:
- Forvo: When it comes to learning any word, making sure you know how to properly pronounce it is important. On Forvo, you can listen to how native speakers pronounce any word. You can quickly search for a word and find its pronunciation, usually spoken by a number of different people.
- FluentU: You can watch new words used in action by native speakers with this language program. Here, you can watch authentic French videos and search for videos using specific words or phrases. Plus, you can add them to your vocab lists as flashcards and study them with personalized quizzes.
- Quizlet: Flashcards are the tried and true method of learning new words. Quizlet lets you create your own fun flashcard decks to review with. You can also search for decks other users have created.
- Tandem: There is no better way to practice new words than with native speakers. But, it’s not always possible to find a speaker near you. That’s where Tandem comes in. Here, you can find a language partner to practice your French with. You teach them English, they teach you French. It’s a perfect exchange!
And there you have it.
French is a very colorful language.
Profitez-en (take advantage of it)!