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Essential French vocab for a heatwave

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Essential French vocab for a heatwave

From heat domes to tropical nights and cool islands - as heatwaves become more common and more intense in France, French vocabulary has expanded to discuss them in detail. Here's the vocab you need to keep up with hot weather chat.


It's not actually true that Inuit languages have more than 100 words for snow (linguists reckon there are around 50 different words relating to snow across various Inuit dialects) but in French there are certainly more and more different ways to talk about a heatwave.

As the planet heats up, heatwaves in France (and across Europe) are becoming more frequent, more intense and longer - and as a result an increasing number of technical or meteorological terms are becoming part of everyday chat as friends, neighbours and colleagues gather to discuss how flipping hot it is.

READ ALSO 7 French phrases to complain about the heat

Chaleur - heat. The all-purpose word for heat doesn't just refer to weather (for example a heat pump is pompe de chaleur) but forms part of several important hot-weather related phrases

Une vague de chaleur - a heatwave, ie several days in a row where the temperature exceeds seasonal norms.


Un dôme de chaleur - heat dome. The weather-forecasting term is increasingly finding its way into French media to describe a warm front of hot air that gets 'stuck' over a certain part of the country, bringing high temperatures for several days at a time.

Une canicule - a heatwave. Used interchangeably with une vague de chaleur, canicule comes from the Latin meaning 'dog days', because the ancients believed that heatwaves were connected with the 'dog star' Sirius.

Un récord absolu - it's common during heatwaves for temperature records to be broken, this is the way to refer to the highest ever recorded temperature, whether that's on a local or a national level. 

Putain de chaleur - this fucking heat. If you're looking for a way to complain about the heat, you can prefix the expletive (or milder version of your choice) to chaleur.


L'ombre - the shade. Also used to mean shadow, in the summer you're more likely to hear l'ombre used to refer to the shade, such as if you want to request a café table in the shade to avoid direct sunlight.

Les nuits tropicales - this means 'tropical nights', but has a more technical definition, referring to any night when the temperature does not drop below 20C. Health authorities are particularly alert to these, as repeated nights when the body cannot cool itself generally means an increase in heat stress for people in vulnerable groups such as the elderly. It also can means sleepless nights.

READ ALSO 'Don't sleep naked' - How to get a good night's sleep during a heatwave

Les îlots de chaleur urbain - urban heat island - or the phenomenon where cities are hotter than surrounding countryside during heatwaves, due to a combination of human activities, concrete surfaces that reflect heat, and heat pollution such as air conditioning units and cars.

Les îlots de fraîcheur - cool islands. In cities, these refer to places where you can go to cool down during a heatwave, and local authorities publish maps showing publicly available cool spaces. These include cool buildings such as churches, air-conditioned spaces like cinemas or supermarkets, water fountains and brumisatuers (cool-fog machines) or local authority run 'cool rooms'.


Vigilance rouge/orange - red or orange alert. French weather forecaster Météo France issues weather regular alerts and in the summer you're likely to see alerts for canicules (heatwaves) or orages (storms).

Sécheresse - drought. Also common in summer is drought alerts and water restrictions.

MAP How to find out if your area of France is on water alerts 

Les feux des fôrets - forest fires or wildfires. Also increasingly common in the summer, Météo France has from summer 2023 also produced a map showing the risk level for wildfires across the different parts of the country. 

Fixé - in relation to wildfires, you might also see firefighters declaring that a fire is 'fixé' - this doesn't mean that it is extinguished, just that the fire is no longer spreading.

Maîtrisé - also used to describe a wildfire, it means that the flames are 'under control'. This is the step after 'fixé' when firefighters try to keep the fire from starting up again or spreading.

Circonscrit - this is not quite éteint (meaning the fire is completely out and firefighters can leave the scene) but it comes after maîtrisé. It means that firefighters have completely surrounded the fire on all sides and it is prevented from going any further. After this, typically there is an effort for the flames to be noyé (drowned, or sprayed with lots of water) which can take several days before it can be officially declared éteint.



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