10 everyday terms that are more poetic in French

Why create a new word when you can use several existing words? From flying deer to licking windows, these are some of the common terms that just sound better in French.

A man flies a butterfly-shaped kite. A kite in French is a 'cerf volant' - flying deer.
A man flies a butterfly-shaped kite. A kite in French is a 'cerf volant' - flying deer. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP.

Papillon de nuit – moth. If you had never come across one before, and had to pick between seeing a “moth”, or a “night butterfly”, it’d probably be a simple choice for most people. Instead of an annoying insect that keeps banging into the light bulb, papillon de nuit makes you think of a butterfly in evening clothes. Language has a lot of power to shape how we see the world, and maybe more insects would benefit from being compared to something more popular.

A la belle étoile – outdoors. This phrase is often used to describe a camping trip, where you might dormir à la belle étoile – sleep under the stars. But because the French have to be extra romantic, they go one further and describe sleeping “under the beautiful star”.

French singer Vanessa Paradis has the ‘teeth of happiness’. Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP

Les dents du bonheur – diastema. The term avoir les dents du bonheur literally means “to have the teeth of happiness”, but it’s how people in France describe someone who has a gap between their two front teeth.

The phrase dates back to the Napoleonic wars, when such people were exempted from service. To load their heavy rifles, soldiers needing to hold their weapon with two hands, and open the cartridge’s paper packaging with their teeth. Since this was believed to be too difficult for people with a gap between their teeth, they avoided being sent to the front lines, thus their smiles became a synonym for luck and happiness.

Cerf-volant – kite. That’s right, a kite in French is a “flying deer”. The most popular theory posits that the term evolved from serp-volante, with serpe a former regional term for serpent (snake), since the first kites are believed to have resembled flying snakes, or dragons. So it has nothing to do with deer, but don’t let that stop you from imagining a soaring deer next time you see a child flying a kite.

Lèche-vitrines – window shopping. You can tell how badly the French need their fashion fix. While in English we talk about going window shopping, the French equivalent is faire du lèche-vitrines – do some window-licking. It may not be the most flattering image, but we feel it captures the longing many of us feel when staring at objects we can’t afford.

Grain de beauté – mole. Literally a “grain of beauty”, this term is of course similar to the English “beauty mark”. But most French people who aren’t doctors will make no distinction between a mole and a beauty mark – they are all grains de beauté in French, regardless of where they appear on the body.

Buy some lovely ‘dad’s beard’ on a trip to the circus. Photo by ERIC ESTRADE / AFP

Barbe à papa – candy floss / cotton candy. Is there any other sweet treat that is so comforting to a child?

It’s like eating a cloud, or a delicious blanket. It’s even more comforting in France, though, where it’s referred to as “dad’s beard”. While we haven’t come across many fathers with pink or blue facial hair, we must admit there is a Father Christmas element to the texture, and the imaginative phrase will transport you to memories of your older relatives and make you forget the damage you’re doing to your teeth.

Œil au beurre noir – black eye. It’s not just that food products are compared to body parts in French – the opposite is also true.

The French term for a shiner is “eye with black butter”. The original expression was slightly longer – œil poché au beurre noir – meaning an “eye poached in black butter’, because the term draws a visual comparison to œufs pochés au beurre noir – poached eggs cooked in butter that’s heated until it turns a dark colour. In this case the pupil becomes the egg yoke. Even in moments of extreme pain, the French have their grandmother’s cooking on the mind.

Pomme de terre – potato. Some terms are so ubiquitous we use them every day and can end up forgetting the literal meaning. But when you stop and think about it, “earth apple” is a pretty good way to describe a potato.

Gueule de bois – hangover. Have you ever thought that the word “hangover” just isn’t evocative enough of the despair you feel the morning after having had too much to drink? French has you covered.

Avoir la gueule de bois literally means “to have a wooden mouth“, and describes the dry mouth you get when you’re dehydrated from having consumed too much alcohol. But it has also come to describe all the symptoms of a hangover. Unfortunately the film The Hangover was released as Very Bad Trip in France, which doesn’t sound quite as impressive.

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The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

Listening to French radio or podcasts or watching TV shows in French is a well known route to improving language skills. So we asked our readers to spell out a few of their favourites.

The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

News programmes, quizzes and culinary reality show Top Chef were among the must-watch French TV shows for anyone keen to improve their language skills, while talk radio and local stations were also top tips from readers of The Local in response to a recent questionnaire.

Streaming video on demand services or DVDs were also among the recommendations, thanks to the ease with which programmes could be rewound and replayed. 

But the most common advice was to make liberal use of subtitles.

News channel France 24 was recommended by reader Seb Rocco, from Montpellier, who suggested that French learners could, “listen in French with English subtitles, or in English with French subtitles”.

Patricia Hobbs, from Lot-et-Garonne, suggested watching French news programmes with French subtitles, going so far as to say “in fact anything with subtitles in French”, to be able to match the sound to the spelling.

As well as M6’s Top Chef, the hugely popular comedy drama Dix Pour Cent, available on Netflix, was recommended for its help developing – ahem – more colloquial French, for which the Canal Plus series La Flamme also got a nod. 

Blood of the Vine on Amazon Prime, Arte TV’s 3x Manon and another Netflix series, Family Business, also got honourable mentions in our survey for helping French learners develop their language skills.

“DVDs with multilingual soundtracks are your friend,” Mike Gibb, who divides his time between Paris and London, wrote. “Play them in French, and if there are sections you don’t get, you can replay them a few times … and the English soundtrack is always there to give extra hints. 

“Most classic films, in black and white, or [from the] golden age of Hollywood will come with multiple soundtracks by default. For the rest, buy English-language originals from to find the versions with French dubbing.”

New Yorker John Hart added: “I like watching TV and movies that have been dubbed into french. Dubbed dialogue is often clearer, and sometimes simpler, than in the original language. Netflix is a great resource for this.”

Local radio stations were also highlighted as great resources for language learners. “[It’s] great to get a feeling of your region, the dialect, and of course news about events, recipes et cetera,” Dora Biloux, who lives in the southwest Occitanie region told us. “Learn the language and get information at the same time.”

She also recommended full immersion in French TV. “Ditch your dish and go for full on French TV – maybe with a package of some english language series, to ease the initial pain.”

And she – wisely – suggested listening to audiobooks. “Get an audiobook in a French translation of an English book that you know well.”

Other readers recommended France Inter radio, and news and talk radio in general.

As for podcasts, recommendations ranged from dedicated educational French language services to RFI’s “Journal Monde” and “Journal en Français Facile”, France Culture’s “Le Pourquoi du Comment: Économie et Social” and “La Question du Jour”, and Bababam’s “Maintenant Vous Savez”, France Inter’s ‘Popopop’ and ‘Autant en emporte l’histoire’, France Culture’s ‘Les Pieds sur Terre’, and Bababam’s ‘Home(icides)’ True Crime.

Keep an eye out for “Talking France,” The Local’s podcast that will be back up with new episodes starting at the end of May. We’ll help you learn some French!

Got any of your own recommendations? Tell us in the comments below, or send an email to [email protected]