Words have always fascinated me. As I went on to learn new languages, it became even clearer, and I was more and more curious about their etymology and their meanings, which may even change among countries that speak the same language.

Whenever I meet someone who speaks French or Portuguese, I ask them what their favorite words are, and usually, people's first reaction is “huh, I never thought about it, but it's a good question. Let me think about it!”

Today, I will share with you my favorite ones, and some of my least favorites and why.

My Four Favorite French Words and Why

Aujourd'hui - this is by far my favorite word in French and the one that inspired me to write about my favorite words in French, which often leads to me asking what people's favorite words are in the languages they speak.

I like this word for several reasons. Firstly, when I was learning French, I found it challenging to write correctly. Only three syllables, yet each one so different from the other, plus wondering 'where should the apostrophe go?'. After mastering its writing, I read about its origins and how the word became what we know today. As a person passionate about languages and their etymology, this fulfills what I love about it. You can read the whole explanation here.

Montgolfière - imagine you're driving in the Alps, and below you is the Lac d'Annecy, surrounded by mountains, while the sky is full of hot air balloons, making it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. This was how I first heard the word montgolfière. But as a visual person, I couldn't really understand how to write it, so one of the kids I took care of broke it down for me, and I thought it was so cute the way she taught me. She said, 'It's like three different words. The first one is like 'mon' as in mine, but with a mute T at the end. Then comes 'gol' as in the English 'goal,' but without the letter A. The end is 'fière', like 'je suis fière de toi'.' Indeed, kids are the best teachers of a new language!

Belle-famille – well, I always thought that calling your partner's family your in-laws was something too cold, rational, and why not, bureaucratic, and I didn't like it. When I first heard the word in French, I thought it was the cutest thing. What a lovely way to call your father-in-law by using the French word related to beauty. Calling a person beautiful instead of 'by the law' really changes the way you see those people and your new family. This makes me think of this TED talk that says we have a different impression of the things around us based on how we use words in different languages.

Poubelle – similar to the previous word, adding 'beautiful' to the term trash bin makes it feel less disgusting, right? This reason alone is enough to like this word, but I have an extra reason: it was the first word I realized I learned just by being in the context. When I heard my host family calling the trash bin 'poubelle', I loved the word right there and then.

My Least Favorite French Words

As far as I could remember, these are my three least favorite French words: chirurgie, architecture and entreprise. It’s not at all related to their meaning, but rather to their phonetics.

Since “architecture” has a similar written form in English, it messes up our brain to think it's the same, so switching the // sound to /ʃ/ (as in 'chef') takes a lot of effort not to mess it up. I always say this word very slowly to pronounce it correctly.

“Chirurgie” is more complicated to me because the word in Portuguese is “cirurgia”. Like the example above, it’s written in a similar way, but changing the /s/ sound to /sh/ makes the word slip slower than it would in my native language. I’m sure this could be hard from English speakers as well.

As for “entreprise”, I can speak it at a regular speed, but the two syllables containing R always try to trick me into saying it differently. It’s like a battle that I always end up winning, but I’m never sure I’ll win when I get to it.

Depending on the languages you speak and the different phonetics they have, you may find other words that you love or that you find are harder to pronounce or dislikeable because of their meaning.

Tell us... what are you favorite and least favorite words in French?

Bruna Franco

Membership Manager

Bruna first joined the Center as a member, looking for an opportunity to practice French and to be around French culture. She is now thrilled to be the Membership Manager and to provide members with the amazing experience she was previously able to enjoy herself. She is a native Portuguese speaker who, by the age of eight, knew she wanted to be multilingual someday. Working at the French Library now seems like a dream come true.

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