9 easy French words with multiple uses
- Credit: Archant
If you’re learning French at home during the coronavirus lockdown and are keen to expand your French vocabulary, these common words can be used in lots of different ways
Meaning sea when used on its own the French word (la) mer is also the root of a number of compound nouns, some of which you might find a bit misleading. For example, un fruit de mer has nothing to do with fruit (it means seafood), un couteau de mer (razor clam) has nothing to do with knives and la fortune de mer is the opposite of what you may think it is (perils of the sea, rather than anything to do with luck or fortune). The expression c’est une goutte d’eau dans la mer is used to say that something is ‘a drop in the ocean’, while ce n’est pas la mer à boire means ‘it’s not asking the impossible’ or ‘it’s not too much to ask.
This simple four-letter word meaning cat features in more French expressions and idioms than you might imagine. Some of them are close to the English, such as être comme chien et chat (to fight like cat and dog) and quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent (when the cat’s away the mice will play), while others might not be quite as obvious. If you want to say that a person has met their match you would use à bon chat bon rat, and if you’re telling it like it is you would appeler un chat un chat (to call a spade a spade). In French you have a cat in your throat rather than a frog (avoir un chat dans la gorge), and chat échaudé craint l’eau froide is the French equivalent of ‘once bitten twice shy’.
The French word for man’s best friend is chien and can be used to mean dog in a number of ways, from un chien de garde (guard dog) and un chien policier (police dog) to un chien secouriste (search and rescue dog). In property terms, un chien assis is a dormer window, and être d’une humeur du chien means ‘to be in a foul mood’. If something happens entre chien et loup it takes place at dusk/nightfall, while the colloquial expression arriver comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles means ‘to arrive like a bull in a china shop’.
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Meaning heart, the French word cœur can also mean core when used in relation to fruit such as apples. Mon cœur is a term of endearment meaning my dear, my love or my sweet, and if something is un coup de cœur it is love at first sight. À contrecœur translates as regretfully or with a heavy heart, and if you avoir le cœur serré you have a lump in your throat. In a culinary context, cuit au cœur means cooked through. Avoir le cœur sur la main means to be generous (not to be confused with the English expression, to wear your heart on your sleeve), while faire contre mauvaise fortune bon cœur means ‘to make the best of a bad job’.
Un cadeau is a present and can be offered for a variety of occasions, be it Christmas (cadeau de Noël), birthdays (cadeau d’anniversaire) or a housewarming (cadeau de bienvenue). If something is un cadeau du ciel, it means it is a godsend. Cadeau is also used in a number of expressions, including la vie ne fait pas de cadeau (nothing in life is free) and ne pas être un cadeau (to not be an easy ride), while tu parles d’un cadeau! is used in an ironic sense to mean ‘lucky me!’
The French word for music can mean something else entirely when used in certain expressions, such as aller plus vite que la musique (to get ahead of yourself or to run before you can walk), and c’est toujours la même musique! (it’s always the same old thing). Reglé comme du papier à musique is a colloquial expression meaning ‘to like clockwork’, while en avant la musique! can be used as an alternative to c’est parti!, meaning ‘ok, let’s go!’.
Une goutte means a drop in English, but can also be translated as a drip, bead (of sweat) or spot (of rain). Le goutte-à-goutte is a medical drip, and alimenter au goutte-à-goutte means ‘to drip-feed’ (information). In medical terms la goutte means gout. C’est la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder la vase is the French equivalent of the idiomatic expression ‘it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back’, and c’est une goutte d’eau dans la mer can be used when you want to say that something is a drop in the ocean.
Pomme means apple but becomes a potato when combined with ‘de terre’, which could then be cut into pommes allumettes (matchstick fries), while a trip to the funfair might involve treating yourself to une pomme d’amour (toffee apple). Moving away from food items, une pomme de douche is a shower head, une pomme de pin is a pine cone and une pomme de discorde is a bone of contention. The idiomatic expression tomber dans les pommes means ‘to faint or pass out’.
Meaning mouth in English, the French word bouche is also an oenological term meaning mouthfeel, which is used to describe the sensation of wine in the mouth. Ôter le pain de de la bouche à qqn means you are taking away someone’s livelihood/bread and butter. De bouche à oreille translates as ‘by word of mouth’, while tourner la langue sept fois dans la bouche avant de parler is a reminder to think twice before speaking/opening your mouth. Une bouche dégout is the French word for a manhole while une bouche-trou can be used to mean a stand-in, stopgap or filler.
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