Many of these are obvious once you see the full name written out, but the different word order of French, where the adjective commonly comes after the noun, means that initials or acronyms are not always easy to work out.
Many of these are used in everyday speech, while official French communications are increasingly addicted to this type of alphabet soup.
Medicine is of course rife with acronyms but there are plenty of phrases that you will frequently hear used in a social or sporting context.
SIDA – Le syndrome d’immunodéficience acquise or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, better known as AIDS. HIV in French is VIH (virus de l’immunodéficience humaine). SIDA is an acronym so it’s pronounced see-da.
SDF – Sans domicile fixe – without a fixed abode or in other words homeless. Sans-abri (without shelter) is also used to describe the homeless but SDF (pronounced es-day-eff) is common too and not just in government publications. You might see headlines like Un SDF retrouvé mort au pied de la cathédrale – A homeless man was found dead in front of the cathedral.
IRM – Imagerie par résonance magnétique or Magnetic resonance imaging, commonly known as MRI. If you have a soft tissue injury you’re likely to be sent for an ee-aire-em if you are in France.
PMA – Procréation médicalement assistée – medically assisted reproduction, usually known in English as IVF (In vitro fertilisation). IVF in France was recently extended to include lesbian couples and single women, so you will still hear people talking about PMA pour toutes – IVF for all. It’s pronounced pay-em-ah.
PMU – Not to be confused with PMA is PMU (Pari mutuel urbain) which is France’s leading gambling company. You will see their green logo everywhere, both at dedicated betting shops and at smaller cafés or tabacs where as well as having a coffee you can place a bet. These PMU (pay-em-oo) cafés are a popular hangout for old Frenchmen, especially in smaller towns.
JO – Jeux Olympiques. Immediately obvious once you see the full phrase, but whereas in English we tend to refer to the Olympic Games as simply ‘the Olympics’ in France it’s commonly shortened to Les JO (pronounced zhee-oh).
Quand tu lis dans @lequipe ce matin : @KMbappe "les JO de 2024 seront une priorité pour moi. Je sais où je passerai une partie de mon été 2024. Ces Jeux sont en France, ce sont ceux du centenaire à Paris. J'en ai toujours rêvé !"
La journée commence bien…très bien même ! pic.twitter.com/uN607s1oe3
— Paris 2024 (@Paris2024) October 5, 2021
The financial world tends to be addicted to jargon, but even if you don’t work in this sector there are some very common acronyms related to money that you will need to know.
TVA – Taxe sur la valeur ajoutée or value-added tax known in English as VAT. This is the tax you pay when you buy goods or services, so if you’re getting a price estimate on something, make sure it includes TVA (tay-vay-ah) to let you know the amount you will actually be paying.
PIB – Produit intérieur brut or gross domestic product (GDP). This one is often seen in headlines about France’s economic performance where PIB has either grown or shrunk.
SMIC – Salaire minimum de croissance, otherwise known as the minimum wage. This is an acronym so it’s pronounced ‘smeek’ and you’ll often hear it used in general conversation as written as a word – Smic, rather than SMIC.
This is important not just for people in low-wage jobs as it’s used as a general measure of subsistence, so for example visas that specify a minimum amount of money to ensure that people are financially self-sufficient will usually use the SMIC as a guideline amount. It changes regularly, but it’s currently €1,589.47 a month before tax for a full-time worker while the pre-tax hourly rate is €10.48.
QG – Quartier générale is the ‘general quarters’ known in English as headquarters or HQ. As in English QG (coo-shay) can be used in the specific sense of the head office of a business or political party, , or slightly more colloquially to describe the epicentre of something.
RIB – Relevé d’Identité Bancaire. This doesn’t really directly translate into English but it means your bank account details. When you open a French account you will be given multiple copies of a RIB – a short document listing your bank account number, IBAN etc and when you set up a direct debit with companies you send them a copy of the RIB. It’s an acronym so it sounds like ‘reeb’.
Some organisations, both French and multinational, are commonly known by initials or acronyms so it’s worth knowing what they are.
OTAN – Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique nord, in English North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, know to much of the world as NATO. It’s pronounced oh-toh.
OMS – Organisation mondiale de la Santé or World Health Organisation (WHO). This one is initials so pronounced oh-em-es.
SNCF – Société nationale des chemins de fer français (National society of French railways). We had to look this up to write this guide as the full name of the French state rail operator is virtually never used, it’s always simply referred to as SNCF and it’s often used as a shorthand for ‘the railways’ as well as to specifically refer to the company. Pronounced ess-en-say-eff.
RATP – Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens or the operator of the Paris public transport network. RATP runs the Metro, trams, buses and some of the RER lines, while SNCF runs the rest of the RER lines and the Transilien suburban train network – which is important to know if one or the other is on strike. We’re heard some anglophones pronounce this as rat-pee (in tribute to the substance that is fairly ubiquitous down in those Metro tunnels) but it’s actually aire-ah-tay-pay.
TGV – Train à grande vitesse. The much-loved French high-speed train is pronounced tay-zhay-vay. The TGV network covers intercity links, if you need to go to a smaller town or village you’ll likely need to connect via the slower local TER (tay-uh-aire) network.
While the above mostly refer to formal or semi-formal situations it’s also increasingly common to see abbreviations used in messages, especially on social media or text messages.
SVP/STP – s’il vous plaît/s’il te plaît. Quite commonly known even in English (such as RSVP on invitations) this is the abbreviation of the formal and informal way of saying please. You’ll commonly find these in informal messages like emails or text messages, and on signs requesting that customers do a certain thing. If you’re reading these out loud it would be more common to say the full s’il vous plâit/s’il te plâit than to spell out the initials.
CC – coucou. Unlike in English where Cc is most commonly used in a formal administrative sense (carbon copy, but usually used to mean copying someone into a message), cc in French is a common abbreviation for the informal greeting coucou. You’ll see it at the beginning of messages from friends, but it’s also common in unsolicited messages – especially on social media where they might have a picture of some genitalia attached. Lovely.
JTM – Je t’aime. Hopefully you’ll know someone pretty well before they send you this, it means they love you.