Often described as melodious, tuneful, and rich, the “language of love” is one of the most learned tongues in the world. In my opinion, French stands out for its particular atmospheric quality. It can take writers' paragraphs to evoke a certain kind of feeling, but French does it in a single word. Words can show us a deep insight into culture and people, so here are two French words that do not exist in English.
Imagine that you are walking down the streets of that city you have always dreamt of going to. It is your first day there, and you look at every landscape with wonder, even if you are not sure where will this road take you. Everything is new, undiscovered, but your heart feels light.
The Larousse dictionary describes the verb dépayaser as breaking your habits by moving to a new country or region, which is often drastically different from the one you are used to. Dépaysement is the almost dream-like state that results from this change of place and habits. Most of the time (though it depends on the context), this does not mean that change brings nostalgia or sadness. You might be transitioning, feel disoriented, or feel like you do not exactly fit in, but you get to enjoy this experience.
To describe this word, we have to make a 180° turn. Now imagine making your way through a dark labyrinth, it has a strong odor and moldy brick walls. You take a turn and you find yourself in a corridor with vine walls with a rose fragrance. Take another turn, and you are back at the gloomy maze.
Enigmatic, exaggerated, obscure. These are some of the terms that amphigourique represents. Rumor has it (and with rumor I mean Ces mots perdus au fond de nos dictionnaires by Jean-Loup Chiflet), that this word, full of irregular syllables, originatedwas originated as an onomatopoeia for a speech that makes no sense. Its dates back to the XVIII century.
Amphigourique is an adverb used to describe something incomprehensible, ideas and concepts put together almost at random, but it also denotes suspicion and intrigue. Pieces such as Molière’s The Imaginary Cuckold can be described as amphigouri, as it is obscure but also comedic, and the ideas and discourse it presents are (probably willfully) incoherent. Moreover, in poetry, an amphigouri is a form that was “composed for humorous effect, which is intentionally and overtly paradoxical, silly, witty, whimsical or otherwise strange.” (Art & Popular Culture Encyclopedia)
Even though there are many more, these are my two picks for French “untranslatable words”. As always, if you know a word that is unique to another language, I encourage you to share it in the comments. As writers, this is a way our craft helps us look at new perspectives.
Chiflet, Jean-Loup. Ces mots perdus au fond de nos dictionnaires. Le Figaro Éditions, 2018.
“Définitions: dépayaser.” Dictionnaire de Français Larousse. Simon & Schuster, https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/d%C3%A9payser/23729. Accessed 20 Mar. 2022.
de Gestas, M. “Connaissez-vous le mot «amphigouri»?” Le Figaro, 03 Feb. 2021. https://www.lefigaro.fr/langue-francaise/expressions-francaises/connaissez-vous-le-mot-amphigouri-20210203. Accessed 20 Mar. 2022.
“Nonsense Verse - The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia.” Art & Popular Culture, www.artandpopularculture.com/Nonsense_verse. Accessed 20 Mar. 2022.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.
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