The French Dictionary


Someone told me that the English language has more words than the French language, which I don’t believe – although to be honest, I’ve never counted. I know English can be kind of kooky at at times, but I don’t think we have multiple words for the same things, from a dozen different words for sinks, to a panoply of words for helmets, depending on what vehicle one is sitting on when wearing it.


However I can attest that there are, indeed, fourteen verb tenses in French versus six in English, which is why I always get my derrière whooped when I play Scrabble in French. According to my handy book of French verbs, many of the verb conjugations are ‘mood related’, to express how someone feels. So je suis (I am) becomes je sois, because you or more to the point – I just absolutely, positively, have to be.


And then there’s the fact that even in one particular tense, like when talking about the present, each verb is spelled differently. Whereas in English, we say I think, You think, We think, They think – spelling the word “think” exactly the same way – in French, each pronoun determines the way the verb is spelled, which changes each time. So it’s Je pense, Vouz pensez, Nous pensons. And yes, I did have to consult my book of French verbs to make sure I got those write. Er, I mean, right. (Gotcha! And you were about to pull that “grammar police” alarm. I told you English can be kooky, too.) So if you want to know why the French are nervously pulling drags off cigarettes, it’s because of the stress of conjugating all those dang verbs.


And I, too, am now considering lighting up every time I write anything in French on Twitter and elsewhere online. Because in my haste, while I’m jumping off métro trains or navigating crowds on sidewalks – toggling back and forth between French and English smartphone keyboards, there’s invariably a goof. And people have actually yelled at me in all-caps for making errors. Ouch!

Hence my now adamant refusal to write in any other language other than the language of Shakespeare. Plus I finally need glasses. As my eye doctor said during my last visit to her, “What took you so long?” So in addition to having my hashtags and smartphone messages spell-checked via crowd-sourcing, I don’t really need constant reminders about how old I’m getting.


As I was writing something in French lately, for a less-public forum than here and there, I was looking up a French word up in my regular dictionary, one that boasts 120,000 French words, as well as a more modern one in app form, and didn’t find it. And I asked the four French people I was with and no one knew the meaning of the word either.


French women may not get fat, but their dictionaries certainly do, so I turned to a rather plump French dictionary from 1913, produced in accordance with the Institut de France, whose Académie Française oversees the French language, and whose board members – known as “the immortals” – scrupulously review any new words for consideration before being added to the French lexicon.


The word was grué, a word that is used to refer to pieces of roasted cocoa beans. And believe it or not, even though I use the word at least two or three times a day, the word wasn’t even in there – in spite of the fact that the French have been grinding pretty great chocolate well before 1913.

animals, etc


But as l leafed through that beautiful old book, I was reminded how much I loved actual page-turning dictionaries, especially old French ones, with their beautiful color plates and line drawings of everything from a cobaye (guinea pig) to saut, the great French pastime of jumping, in all its guises.


The first pages of the book have gone missing from years of wear. (Or perhaps torn out by a century by frustrated anglophone Scrabble-players?) So this particular dictionary now begins with the words Alcoolique, which none of who live in a wine-soaked country (which perhaps may be another by-product of the overload of verbs to conjugate) needs to look up. As well as Alkermes, a liqueur colored by ground insects – that you probably don’t want to ever have to look up either.


And interestingly, or tellingly, the last entry is for Zythum, which is described as a “beer that Egyptians make from fermented barley” – which is a word I’m going to have to remember to wow my French adversaries during our next Scrabble tournament.

natural calamities

It wouldn’t be French is there wasn’t drama, and even more drama, with pictures of natural disasters. Yes, the worst is always going to happen. And yes, that’s why I fit right in.


For those who are sportif, there are descriptions of gymnastic equipment, various types of fish, and mushrooms in one of the few color plates, probably because of the dangers involved in misinterpreting edible varieties from others. (fyi: Did you know that all pharmacists in France are trained to identify mushrooms, and can let you know which are edible and which aren’t?). And speaking of very-specific words there are chaffs of wheat, too.

And in case you want to know where you mushrooms, fish, and wheat go, once you swallow them, it’s in here, too.


The biggest challenge in Scrabble is when you’re stuck with a “W” as there are very few French words that begin with that letter, hence that chapter is a mere page-and-a-half long.


“Walkman” hadn’t made it into this 1913 version yet, obviously, but it’s in the newer French dictionaries along with a few other W-words, rounding the section up to a page-and-three-quarters for the W entries. If you’re every playing Scrabble, here’s a tip: Wu means Chinese money. I’ve tried to disqualify it on the basis that it isn’t French, but I get argued down. (Which also happens a lot around here. And not just online, ya know.)


But man, every time I pick one of those tiles with a W on it, I feel like eating one of those mushrooms, or waving the flag of surrender. Thankfully, there are a (colorful) number of them to choose from.


All that leafing through the French dictionary, I starting thinking about my Estomac, and decided it was time for dinner. And lo and behold, when I picked up a French cookbook from the cupboard where I was staying, I found that it contained a French culinary dictionary as well.

La Cuisine Moderne

Although chocolate-winnowers would not be pleased that grué wasn’t in there either, there were plenty of others. I don’t think winnower in France begins with a “W“, but I am not going to spend the time looking it up in the dictionary because I’m pretty certain it’s not in there either. I guess I need to wait for a French chocolate-only dictionary to come out.

La Cuisine Moderne livre

cusine dictionary

But vegetables are abundant on the colorful plates, each one identified, with recipes in other parts of the book. The recipes would drive folks who don’t understand a three sentence description for how to make onion soup, which doesn’t bother to say that you need to peel the onions, or precisely how thick to slice them, down to the exact millimeter.


I love the colorful meat drawings which I’m thinking of printing out and handing to visitors to France who ask me which cuts of meat correspond with cuts of meat from their home countries. And they don’t because the meat is butchered differently. It’s like when I explain what violets are, which I think are considered crustaceans, and supposedly good for “men problems”, a point which a fish monger drove home with by raising his thick forearm in the air. I haven’t tried them yet because I’m still waiting to hear back if they’re covered by the French health care system. But I can let you know, if you must.


There are a lot of culinary terms, which seemed so specific, and so French. Until I remembered that in English, we have words like ecumer (skim) and “bard” for meat (and with apologies to those trying to learn English, as another English language oddity, the aforementioned Mr. Shakespeare was also known as a ‘bard’), and “winnow” for cocoa nibs.

culinary terms

By now you’re probably wondering, “What are gibier?” Well, here ya go. It’s all the wild stuff that we eat in France, usually during the fall and winter, when it’s hunting season. The other night we had dove for dinner, which sounds like a mash-up between a soap and supper jingle, but I saw those winged critters at the market earlier the week. And a few days later, there they were, on my plate.


Fancier fare is depicted as well, in pièces montées, or showpieces, and it’s funny because in French, pièce usually means “room”, as in, an apartment that has three pièces. And I snickered at the market the other day when some visitor asked in halting French for three pièces of jambon.

mounted pieces

And while I wanted to say that he’d just ordered three rooms of ham, he’s probably reading this now and laughing at me since in addition to “room”, I later remembered that it does something refer to a piece of meat.

So how do you say “meat room” – pièce de pièce?


Finally there are pastries, in all their sepia glory. And savory pastries at that, undoubtably filled with pièces of meat, their fabrication winnowed from years of knowledge. And probably even back in their day, they cost quite a bit of wu, je pense.

Never miss a post!


  • Vadalia
    October 20, 2012 9:53am

    Thoroughly enjoyed every picture and every word.

  • SusaninLondon
    October 20, 2012 9:57am

    Love the post!.
    Yes English does have many more words than most other languages. It enables us to be more concise and specific when writing. As graphic designers know, when translating English to French, or German particularly, it takes much more space on the page than the English text.

  • Rebecca
    October 20, 2012 10:44am

    David this is a wonderful post! That dictionnaire is beautiful! Here in Canada (at least, outside of Québec) French is required learning for the better part of our schooling. (In Québec of course French is required throughout). Most of us hated it but having been raised Italian-Canadian thankfully it was easier for me. I wasn’t too keen on the class but I have to say, I was so glad to have it instilled so early on. It definitely made our trips to Europe much more enjoyable, even if our grammar was far from perfect! It’s such a beautiful language. I wish I could find all my French teachers and tell them (en Français, bien sûr!) how grateful I am!

  • JMS
    October 20, 2012 10:46am

    ÉMILE LITTRÉ dictionnary:
    GRUÉ, ÉE (gru-é, gru-ée), part. passé de gruer. Réduit en gruau. De toutes ces graines légumineuses les unes étant gruées servent à faire les différentes soupes connues sous le nom de soupes farineuses, TISSOT, Santé des gens de lettres, § 59. Des vivandières allaient de feux en feux, proposant des gâteaux de blé grué, CHATEAUBRIAND Itin. 2e part.
    Champagne, gru, son ; génev. grus, orge mondé ; provenç. grus, grain ; du germanique : anglo-sax. grut ; angl. grout ; anc. h. allem. gruzî ; allem. mod. Grütze, grain mondé.

  • October 20, 2012 11:21am

    According to Hugh Laurie “winnowing” is definitely French. Scrabble away! ;)

  • Antoine
    October 20, 2012 11:26am

    JMS beat me to it!

    Grué is a past participle from the verb gruer. The noun, the word you were probably looking for, is “gruau”. You will find these in any dictionary. (And funny enough, “gruau” can also refer to a baby crane).

    I hated the day when I came to realize that most of the words I couldn’t find in the dictionary didn’t exist in the first place!

  • Stephen
    October 20, 2012 11:27am

    If you think French is bad, you should try German. Sixty four different versions of the definite article. As Mark Twain said “a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” It’s good to see you’ve become such a connoisseur of the French language, or should that now be connaisseur?

  • Aurumgirl
    October 20, 2012 12:54pm

    Who wouldn’t want a “piece de jambon”? By the way, my mother made lots of Alkermes and used it in our birthday cakes. I would have loved to see the definition in your dictionary because I still love the flavour of that liqueur.

  • Meri
    October 20, 2012 1:12pm

    This was charming, and the pictures are beautiful. I’ll pass on the jambon, though.

  • October 20, 2012 1:24pm

    Loved the post! I need to get my hands on one of these French dictionaries. They are beautiful

  • October 20, 2012 1:24pm

    I am trying to learn French far too late in life and with a bad memory as well I am finding it more than difficult. We play French scrabble every Tuesday, but without help I would be at a complete loss. All those verb endings are way beyond me!!

    This is a fantastic post love it. Diane

  • Peter
    October 20, 2012 1:59pm

    Living in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, the other two official languages are of course mandatory. I’m glad I speak French and German, but all in all, they are both still small languages. I speak, read and write far more English than French, German and, amazingly, even Dutch. Dutch is a language mainly used as a written language. You can count the people who speak correct dutch on a few hands. Where I live we speak a local dialect, that is so different from standard dutch, people living 50 miles from here can hardly understand it. Actually, people living 10 miles from here already have a vocabulary that is quite different from ours.
    And I can confirm that English has a far bigger vocabulary than either one of the other languages I know. But this tidbit of information should always be accompanied by the following: speaking English on a day to day basis requires a far smaller vocabulary than most other languages. So, easy to use, hard to master…
    And the dictionary is beautiful. The artwork reminds me of the instructional posters we had in school. ‘Life cycle of the frog’ and things like that, with terrific art work. They are the most vivid images left from my early school days.

  • October 20, 2012 2:10pm

    Those books have such lovely pictures!

  • Lindie
    October 20, 2012 2:22pm

    I love the paintings of the little champignons!

  • adrian
    October 20, 2012 2:31pm

    Maybe “pièce de pièces de viande”? ;-)
    In school I learned “chambre” and just recently in Paris I heard “pièce” for the first time used in the same sense.

  • October 20, 2012 2:32pm

    Amazing dictionary. I feel your pain re: switching dictionaries on le portable. Spelling errors are going to happen. Those obnoxious people correcting you should try to live a bilingual life!

    • October 20, 2012 4:19pm
      David Lebovitz

      The hard thing is that there is an auto-correct on my iPhone and I am constantly switching back and forth between the English and French keypad. And it’s hard to read what it being auto-corrected when I am on the go. So I’ve slowed up my usage of Twitter and Instagram when I am out-and-about.

      But what I do find amusing is when people correct the French, via me. And people tell me that it’s not a café express, but an espresso. Or radicchio is not the same as trevise – in spite of the fact that that’s what it’s called in France. Or salade César is missing an “a” in Caesar…

  • jennybookworm
    October 20, 2012 2:45pm

    I feel better now knowing that Girolles is another word for Chanterelles — I was in France this summer and kept seeing and buying mushrooms in the market that I was sure were Chanterelles but everyone kept saying they were Girolles! Delicious either way! I guess here in Canada we only use the one word instead of both (at least where I live – I’m probably wrong on that too!!)

  • October 20, 2012 3:00pm

    I did find English easier to learn. It has less grammar rules and exceptions to the rules. For vocabulary, I’m not sure which has more (though I find English richer and more practical). A lot of times, I try to translate an English word into French and it has no equivalent or requires a whole sentence to say the same thing.

    Love all the mushroom names. Foie de boeuf…interesting name for a champignon!

    • October 20, 2012 4:16pm
      David Lebovitz

      Some French friends have told me English was fairly easy to learn – in spite of goofiness (like why we say teeth as plural of tooth, rather than teeths, or why fish isn’t always fishes, in plural – which I still don’t get myself…) But most cite the lack of multiple verbs as well as a lack of feminine and masculine adjectives and words, such as vendeur or vendeuse, or le, les, or la, whereas in English, we simply say “the”.

  • Roberta
    October 20, 2012 3:42pm

    What a gorgeous book, even if I only recognize one word in fifty. It made me laugh to see on the Asia page, all the usual kitchen staples: rice, olives, tea, OPIUM. Just like my kitchen.

  • Jessika
    October 20, 2012 4:47pm

    Once, while living in Japan, I told my colleagues that I was going out to dinner. My train of thought derailed and I ended up saying I was hoping to have some good “ceramics”. Yeah right…

  • October 20, 2012 4:54pm

    This was a very enjoyable post, so much beautiful and interesting pictures!

  • FBC!
    October 20, 2012 4:56pm

    Beautiful engravings, I forgot those. A lot of French words that are used in some professions never make it to the French dictionaries, for example a label for an artwork in a museum is called “un cartel”, and it’s usually not found in this sense in most dictionaries (maybe now it is but I don’t have a French dictionary handy right now).I don’t think “grué de cacao” was used that much in France up to maybe 15 years ago, so maybe that explains it.

    jennybookworm, actually what people call “chanterelles” in the US are what we call “girolles” in France, because chanterelles are another type of mushrooms (smaller and grayer than girolles). It’s one of those things…
    I learned English, German and Italian (and Latin) and I’m soon to learn Dutch, and even though I think English is easy to learn grammar-wise, at least for a French person, the pronunciation is a b**ch. Why is it “bear” but “gear” or “Christ” but “Christmas”. And don’t get me started on “pecan” and “vegan”. I say tomato…

  • October 20, 2012 4:58pm

    You are just too funny!

  • Jessika
    October 20, 2012 5:02pm

    I never did forget the word I was supposed to use when “ceramics” came to mind. Has a good explanation but would take too much space and jiggling into the corners of Japanese nouns, chinese characters (kanji) and all else.

    English came easy to me, too. I can’t explain the grammatical specifics of my first language even if threatened with death, something just sounds right.

  • Nevine
    October 20, 2012 5:06pm

    David, you made me laugh! I read your post while helping my son study for a French exam and tearing my hair out at the bizarre verb tenses. Not sure which tense expresses that particular mood :)

  • Sheri Hulme
    October 20, 2012 5:15pm

    Beautiful! Thank you…!

  • ash
    October 20, 2012 5:15pm

    What a fantastic post. Beautifully put together!

  • Rainey Vivier
    October 20, 2012 5:28pm

    Dear David, Being a “first time commenter”, I read the policy first and had to laugh out loud at #10. You are good! I look forward to your posts, and love your comments, by the way.
    I have a question. My husband (French from near Grenoble) and I (originally from Florida), now live near Uzès and are going to Paris for a few days next week. He is a retired chocolatier. I have your App for reference, but would you mind telling me your absolute favorite chocolate shop in Paris?
    Thanks so much.

    • October 20, 2012 5:40pm
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t have an absolute favorite as some make certain things that I like. In my Top 25 list in the app, I’ve short-listed my very favorites.

  • Kim Uyyek
    October 20, 2012 5:31pm

    I have a small collection of old French & French/English dictionaries – some of my students enjoy employing old French words in their creative writing. Thank you for sharing these beautiful pages.
    When my students start complaining about the difficult pronunciation of French, I write comb, bomb, and tomb on the board. They stop complaining, for a short while at least.

  • Helen McHargue
    October 20, 2012 5:53pm

    A great read. You are such a talented writer, you can turn the most every day items into riveting reading.

  • Claudette Hepburn
    October 20, 2012 6:06pm

    Thank you for taking the time to share these great pages with us, David. Of course I always appreciate your comments about whatever has taken your fancy, usually centered on cooking or cooking equiment. But as a bred and born Frenchwoman I absolutely revel in your enthusiasm for what France has to offer.
    Thank you for your sharp eyes, sharp buds, sharp ears and sharp intellect!
    You often make my day!

  • October 20, 2012 6:10pm

    Such a beautiful dictionary – I could spend hours leafing through those pages!
    French sounds like such a complicated language to learn! My brother and I tried it for about 1 week when we were little kids and then we gave up! (Not until he had learned to say the extremely crucial sentence “The pig crossed the road!”).

    Do you use the same pronouns and verb conjugations in French when you are talking to others? In Bengali, we have to use different ones when we are talking to someone who is younger than us, one who is similar in age and ones who are older than us. I don’t know of any other language that uses a complete different set of pronouns and verbs based on the age of the person one is addressing!

    You have such a lovely blog! I always enjoy reading through your posts!

  • Linda H
    October 20, 2012 6:16pm

    When I told a French friend that French was the language of diplomacy because it was nuanced enough to convey exact meanings, she said, “Not the way we speak it!”

  • Lee Knowles
    October 20, 2012 6:17pm

    Exquisitely written and photographed. My grandparents has an antiquarian bookstore (in New England) and I loved every part of this lovely piece.

    David, keep up the good work for those of us that delight in your lifestyle choice and well-selected, adopted home.

  • Hillary
    October 20, 2012 6:20pm

    What a wonderful post! I love all the illustrations – a great way to learn. The page of meteorological conditions made me laugh because it contains a word I learned in a funny way. My mother and I were once driving in rural Quebec when we came upon enormous yellow signs posted on both sides of the road, warning in letters 3 feet high of BROUILLARD! My mother grew up in Montreal and speaks French, but didn’t know that word. The French dictionary wasn’t handy. What did the signs warn of? Was the road about to end at a precipice? Were we entering an area of great danger? Eventually when we stopped for gas we got out the dictionary and learned that we had driven through an area prone to fog (brouillard), although we hadn’t seen any.

  • David Miras
    October 20, 2012 6:28pm

    Superb post! it did make me smile too which is rare!

    and please don’t reduce your output on twitter and instagram just because of the pedants, I follow you on both and you inject some much needed Frenchness in my daily life

  • Linda
    October 20, 2012 6:38pm

    Great post David. I too grew up in Canada where I studied French right through university. Although I rarely use it in Canada, when I go to France I can manage elementary conversations. I studied Japanese for 2 years and when I first lived there and began modest conversations, interestingly enough, the first words that came into my head were always in French, not Japanese.
    If you are really keen on the etymology of the English language take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary website where you can view all the new words that are added monthly (I believe there are some French words also) You can also ffollow them on twitter and receivie a word of the day.
    A fascinating read about the OED is this book
    Love reading your blog, especially these little essays on your quotidien observances.
    Quotidien = one of my favorite words.

  • Carla west
    October 20, 2012 6:38pm

    People are giving you a hard time about your posts on twitter? Really? No one language is that precious. We live in a big world with hundreds of different ways to communicate. Take pride in your very tenacious effort and let the criticism slide right back to those pompous assh**es! Don’t change what you do because some people feel the need to berate….that says way more about them than you.

  • October 20, 2012 6:56pm

    I am a linguist so you can imagine how much I love this post :) Yes, English does have more words than French, simply because of the influence of different languages it received through history. English is also much more flexible than French and therefore “adopts” new and foreign words more easily than French, so the English language keeps growing at a super rapid pace. And finally, speakers of English rarely know the rules of their own language (while speakers of French are supposed to know the rules) so they make up new English words and expressions all the time, which I love! But I love French, too, of course, parce que je suis Suisse :)

    • October 20, 2012 7:13pm
      David Lebovitz

      What’s interesting is how much English is creeping quickly in the French lexicon. For a long time it was kind of tolerated, but now it’s getting close to obligatoire. (So perhaps French is getting more adaptable as well?…) There are ads in the métro right now for a cell phone provider that say, Vous êtes 4G ready?

      Lots of words like le weekend, le scrapbooking, les cookies, are just a few of the words off the top of my head that are now part of the French language – although am not sure they are approved, or not.
      ; )

  • Patsy
    October 20, 2012 7:04pm

    David, one of your best posts ever, thank you. The dictionary pages remind me of those wonderful huge schoolroom posters that are sold at Deyrolle’s rue du Bac shop. We have the one with all the cheeses on it.

  • marcella
    October 20, 2012 7:47pm

    Thoroughly captivating! Merci :)

  • Jessika
    October 20, 2012 8:10pm

    I seem to be commenting alot today, hope it’s not regarded as spamming. All languages are tricky and learning a new language takes time and patience. All have incongruities that you’ll never get the hang of. I have four languages in my arsenal, I can read two more. I found English easy but then English was, when I was in school, compulsory from age 10, now it’s from 7. That and English speaking tv-shows, movies etc., (subtitling here, no dubbing except in childrens programs), being all over, picking more up and maintaining it as you go along is easier.
    Less so with Japanese and indonesian. You find some words – in any language – to be non-translatable. I’ve found that to be more prevalent when studying asian languages, especially when it comes to describing emotional states and other more ethereal concepts. If I were to translate some verbs, nouns, whatever. It just sounds plain wrong in any other language. THAT is the very entrapment and excitement of language. Still, it leaves you completely exhausted.

  • inge
    October 20, 2012 8:14pm

    David, really, really loved this piece, or shoud I say room of blog?
    Being Dutch, I always envy both the French and the English, for their languages are so much richer than mine!

  • October 20, 2012 8:30pm

    Pharmacists in Spain are also trained to distinguish mushrooms which is very useful since Spaniards love foraging when the conditions are good. If they are in doubt, every town has a pharmacy even if the pharmacist has to go to several towns during the week. Pharmacists are also the first professionals you go to when something ails you. Depending on his or her wise opinion, you go home with a little something to help you feel better or you go to la clinica and make an appointment to see el doctor. They are wonderfully useful and the always tiny pharmacy always smells wonderful. Oh, and there is always a big poster of indigenous mushrooms and a good sampling of edible wild flowers and weeds.

  • October 20, 2012 8:44pm

    Hilarious, informative, and charming. Ah….. language! What would we do without it?!

  • Burgundybrit
    October 20, 2012 8:52pm

    David, thanks for a great post. I loved the illustrations. You are so right about the use of English here. It seems de rigeur ( pardon the pun) for a new product or shop to have some kind of English word combination nowadays but what on earth is going on with the English word ‘look’??? all this relooker, relooké, relookage usage is just wrong wrong wrong! Especially since there are many French words that are perfectly suited to the description. Eg style, regard, refaire etc
    Then again I’m sure we are guilty of miss-using many a French word. En-suite comes to mind. Say that to a French person and they look totally confused. En-suite what??? And the word Riviera is not used by any of my French friends.
    I need to lie down…..

  • October 20, 2012 9:14pm

    great post. the pictures are so beautiful, you are going to cause a run on french dictionaries.

  • rouquin ricain
    October 20, 2012 9:22pm

    david, are you sure that this is the dictionnaire de l’académie française? – i’ve never seen an illustrated copy before, it would be very, very out of character for the official dictionary of the august french academy. the definitions also don’t seem to be those that the academy would use. looks more like an old larousse illustré. otherwise, wonderful post as always. i remember reading one of your posts in which you mentioned grué which i’d never heard of either after 15 years over here and several french degrees in french literature. i hate (and love) it when that happens.

  • rouquin ricain
    October 20, 2012 9:25pm

    i just checked the years the various editions of the dictionnaire de l’académie française were published and there wasn’t a new edition in 1913 (editions in 1694, 1718, 1740, 1762, 1798, 1835, 1878, 1935, and a new one in progress) – i like dictionaries quite a bit, you can tell.

    I don’t have the dictionary with me, as it wasn’t mine so I don’t know the precise origins of it but I do recall from the forematter that there was some accord with the Académie on the content. I changed the wording in the post to reflect that. -dl

  • nic miller
    October 20, 2012 9:45pm

    David……..I always wondered if Johnny Marr from the Smiths name was an ennui laden derivative of the phrase “J’en ai marre’ as they sound so similar! It would suit their music….

    Also, I alm reminded of the chapter in your book which draws attention to the pronunciation in French (and what it cleverly means as a statement) of the store of wonders- ‘G Detou’ in Les Halles- which was my first place of pilgrimage upon my arrival. The second place I visited was the Montmartre vineyard which I saw in a British TV programme years ago and was charmed by.

    • October 20, 2012 9:47pm
      David Lebovitz

      Hmm, never thought of Johnny Marr. But I’ve heard some funny French plays on words that sound similar, like the way that ver (worm), verre (glass), vers (toward), and vert (green) all sound the same, but mean completely different things.

  • nic miller
    October 20, 2012 9:55pm

    I detest the substitution of the letter ‘Z’ for an ‘S’ in so many English language businesses/stores here in the UK. Ugly, lazy and devoid of imagination.

    However the Welsh have had to ‘adapt’ English words into their own language when an equivalent translation is lacking such as Ambulance into ‘Ambiwlans’.

    Many of their words have commonality with French; for instance ‘church’ is ‘Eglwys’ in Welsh (like L’Eglise) and ‘window’ is ‘Ffenestr’.

    ‘The Sweet Life in Paris is ‘Bywyd Melys yn Paris’

  • Chandler In Las Vegas
    October 20, 2012 10:28pm

    Daveed! Your insights are perspicacious and humorous. MERCI! And you mentioned the unicorn of exotic ingredients: alchermes! It is the must have, hard to find ingredient for the Italian classic Zuppa Inglese. As far as I can tell, you have to have it smuggled out Italy after it is purchased in person at the Pharmacia of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. My bottle of royal purple (the bugs) liqueur is a tribute to international coordination. Your post also reminds me that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow.

  • Chandler In Las Vegas
    October 20, 2012 10:33pm

    Oh, and Daveed, you could include Cinderella’s translational conundrum between verre and vair. The glass slipper is much more fairy tale than a squirrel fur slipper…

  • BobY
    October 20, 2012 10:39pm

    As others have alluded, English is a language of precision and is excellent for science, commerce and other concrete forms, French is a language of feeling, shades of emotion, of self and of the spirit, besides being the most beautiful of all languages when spoken well. I believe its been said the the region of the Loire has the most “correct” accent (like Nebraska in the US) and certainly the most mellifluous.

    • nic miller
      October 20, 2012 10:41pm

      My Father lived in the Loire region ,near Richelieu until his recent death. we still have his house. I find the regional dialect easy to follow.

  • October 20, 2012 11:08pm

    Not sure if you know the expat couple Randy and Jack (who live near Convention) but Jack once told me that there is a contest in France, where French people are dictated to in French and they write down what they thought they heard. Once I heard this, I felt much better about my inability to understand anything but short, simple phrases. Now that Im studying Spanish, I have identified my main problem with both languages – those damn direct and indirect objects. I get the concept but never “get” it when I actually have to understand anyone.

  • Shelia
    October 21, 2012 12:28am

    What a fine and clever article. You’re good.

    Shelia in Oklahoma

  • October 21, 2012 12:33am

    What a gorgeous post David & simply lovely books. I’ve always enjoyed wandering through dictionaries, mostly looking at the (sometimes very odd) origins of words, but those colour plates, and even the black and white, are so beautifully drawn they add a whole new avenue of pleasure. I’m a sucker for old cookbooks too -once again for the colour plates.

  • Janet
    October 21, 2012 2:11am

    Who needs to watch the Comedy Channel? I always get a good laugh from your honest and witty posts .. it’s great to see that you are coping with life in Paris without too much stress. I love the French language, it is so sexy and one can express oneself ever so much better than in English. Oops, see what I mean.

  • Brian Alkire
    October 21, 2012 2:51am


    You are a treasure of a man. Thank you for sharing your world and your words, and making my world a better and richer place.

    And, to boot, seem to make learning French, if not a piece of cake, a lot more fun. :)

  • Mindy D
    October 21, 2012 3:00am

    I feel another book coming on…..

  • October 21, 2012 3:05am

    I love the antique dictionary you have, it’s gorgeous! Also I am very excited to try all the “gibiers” when I get to Paris next week.

  • Gillian
    October 21, 2012 3:45am

    Loved, loved this post – the pages are beautiful. Worth looking at the difference in size between a French- Eng dictionary and the English-French to French version. English draws words from both Latin and Germanic roots as well as greek- it can be interesting in English to note two versions of a word that mean slightly different things, one related to the German/Scandinavian roots, the other from Latinate or Greek roots. And as your linguist poster noted above, the French have (until recently) rigorously maintained lingustic boundaries where English has expanded rapidly to absorb words from other roots. Also, re: puns/plays on words in French – homophones are so common in French that children’s magazines, books are full of plays on words in a way you rarely see in English – it’s a way of teaching kids to recognize the diffferent spellings/meanings in order to learn to read/spell/write/use grammar properly in French. One last comment – the difficulty of searching conjugated versions of words in a French dictionary is part of the reason it took so long to incorporate French dictionaries in ereaders sold in France – it’s not as easy to index the words as it is in English.

  • Linda H
    October 21, 2012 3:53am

    Grade school French teacher–“How do you say, ‘the light is out in the bathroom’?” “Jeanne d’Arc.”

  • latafiolesucrée
    October 21, 2012 5:36am

    Have you considered taking formal classes on French grammar and pronunciation? Living there and having a French-speaking significant other, as you do, are certainly the best ways to learn the language, but formal instruction can really help with the fine-tuning. I found that learning the mechanical basis of the way the French produce sounds and the numerous, fundamental ways it differs from the ways English speakers use their tongues and vocal chords can go a long way in reducing the rather thick American accent which you seem to have. For instance, the French keep their vocal chords very tense while English speakers and especially Americans, keep them very relaxed–which accounts for the dipthongization which is the basis for French people’s parody of Americans or Brits speaking French. The French also do not aspirate consonants as in English, they keep their tongue in a much more forward position in their mouths, they produce d and t sounds with their tongues really against their teeth, etc., etc. It’s a very interesting subject and you can learn to minimize your accent quite a bit. And formal study of grammar can make you much more confident in your use of moods and tenses.

  • Martin
    October 21, 2012 7:08am

    Linda H said French is the language of diplomacy because of it’s specificity–I’d suggest it is also valuable to diplomacy because, as David points out, there’s lots of ambiguity out there.

    David, I don’t expect I’ll ever eat your food, tho I try some of your recipes. But I also get to read you every post, and every book. And given this post especially, that’s hugely better than my tries!

  • Kirsten
    October 21, 2012 7:47am

    What gorgeous books! They remind me of the encyclopedias from the same time period we had growing up–we didn’t have any current editions, just a set from 1913. The geography I learned from it, though, didn’t quite help me out in present day social studies classes.

    My dog doesn’t care what you call it in French, she just wants to visit this “meat room.”

  • Balisand
    October 21, 2012 8:24am

    Yes! Had to haul down my hard copy Shorter Oxford, and as I had surmised, the English word “gruel” is derived from the French “gruau”. A thin, grainy soup. Both related to the medieval Latin grutellum, from which we also get “grout”. Ain’t language wonderful? I’ve always been fascinated by the way that English derived words from both Anglo-Saxon and from the French, their rulers for so long. Crops up often in terms for food – the farm’s calf became veal (veau) when it was served at the castle, and the sheep became mutton (mouton). Interesting that “cerf” (deer) was never incorporated into English in any way that I know of, unlike “boeuf” – beef, bovine, maybe even buffalo. Gorgeous post David, thank you.

  • Jill
    October 21, 2012 8:53am

    English has many more than 6 tenses. There are at least 12.

  • October 21, 2012 9:05am
    David Lebovitz

    Martin: The French politicians often speak in the conditional tense, because it leaves a lot of wiggle room. I’ve started doing that here on the blog because whenever I speak in absolutes, there is usually a voice that will point out something different. So it covers all the bases ; )

    Jill: That was according to my book on French verbs, by Christopher Kendris, PhD, who was a professor at Columbia and the Sorbonne. (It’s on page xiv of Barron’s French Verbs.) I’m not a linguist, just a cookie-baker, so I yielded to his explanation.

    latafiolesucrée: I have taken French classes during various times in my life in Paris. But it’s also good to speak it a lot…even though you learn a lot of slang, unintentionally.

    Gillian: Yes, a lot of technology (and advertising) in France is using English terms – for one reason, they are more universal. And I think in advertising, people find them witty.

  • October 21, 2012 12:38pm

    JMS beat me to it, but when a word ends in “é”, it’s likely to be a tense of a verb ending in “er”, that’s why it will not be in the dictionary.


  • October 21, 2012 3:33pm

    I could frame each one of those pages. Gorgeous.

  • October 21, 2012 3:46pm

    I am amazed by all of these comments. They are almost as fun as David’s post…..the key word in ENGLISH being “almost”. David, YOU are the best! Your blog is one of the few I follow. It is obvious to us all that you have a natural talent for writing, a basic use of language. Thank you for sharing your talent for cooking as well!

  • October 21, 2012 3:59pm

    Wonderful post! I love dictionaries … I have saved my gigantic “petit Larousse” from my high school days in France. I treasure it and glance at it once in a while.
    Lovely lovely post!

  • October 21, 2012 6:54pm

    What a treat! Thanks so much for sharing this, David. I have been collecting old French dictionaries for a while, too, usually for peanuts. But I have a hunch the price will go up after the popularity of this wonderful post.

  • October 21, 2012 8:41pm

    The most enchanting aspect of the French language for me was the subjunctive tense… the very idea that one can express uncertainty/doubt/emotion by the tense… that is to say that the very grammatical structure (by which our mind describes reality) admits that everything said lies on a spectrum of objective/subjective and a spectrum of interiority/exteriority whoa what? Yet, go figure, that part of the language that seduced me is the most difficult for me to learn.

    I laughed a bit when you noted that the french cookbook had failed to mention to peel the onion. I bought a little cookbook par Yves Camdebord and remember being struck about the things assumed and left unsaid… like don’t let the bain marie boil. Or to peel the cucumber. (Apparently, the cucumber is ALWAYS peeled) and how one prepares, exactly, mussels. Was at a loss trying to make a soup that translated literally as “Swim of lentils and mussels.”

    As a good portion of your readers ont remarqué déjà, cette dictionaire est tellement belle. What I would give to have it a part of my library!

  • October 21, 2012 9:39pm

    As someone who has tried to play spanish scrabble (even has different letters), you have my sympathy. It’s the verb conjugations that drive me mad, they make having a conversation really hard!

  • Anne-Marie Prichard
    October 21, 2012 9:51pm

    Funnier (is that a word?) than funny! Your sense of humour is “imbattable”! Now I have to spread a mask on my face to try to erase the wrinkles after laughing so hard.
    Thank you once again for a wonderful piece (!) of prose.

  • Kathy D.
    October 22, 2012 1:19am

    Just to add to the “more words” discussion, yes English has more, in spite of how it may seem. I’m a translator (French>English), and in general my translations end up with fewer words than the source documents. What happens is that in French it takes more words to say the same thing as in English, because words have to be combined (e.g. “le chien de ma tante” and “my aunt’s dog”). French does however lend itself to poetry. The Latin languages are very logical, and the French love to point that out…BUT go figure the gender of nouns…no rhyme or reason. Nouns don’t need gender to be understood….you do that with context et ça me gonfle!!

    What can be really fun is to learn local “argot”. It can be so interesting. Like a “hedge” here where I live. The usual word is “la haie”, but the local argot is “la bouchure”, and if you want to say someone is a little off-kilter, you can say they are a little “bredin”. In fact there is a “débredinoire” in a small village here…a stone reliquary in a church, with the bones of a sainted bishop, that has a recess where you put your head so you can be “débrediner” or cured of your craziness. I took all my relatives there.

  • October 22, 2012 2:50am

    You’ve made my nostalgic for my mother’s Petit Larousse now. I’d forgotten about all the illustrations!

    I hadn’t thought of all the advantages of playing scrabble in French, as far as tenses go. I wonder if I can make some foreign language house rules for home use…?

  • October 22, 2012 8:11am

    Here you go, grué as cocoa nibs, just a click away

  • mhs
    October 22, 2012 1:39pm

    on a side track: walkman? WALKMAN?? Don’t cross the Académie’s way with that.The correct French term for that almost forgotten gadget is/was baladeur. The Fnac marked it that way (had to), oh yeah.

    • October 22, 2012 1:46pm
      David Lebovitz

      It must have somehow passed inspection, because it does appear in Larousse. Wagon and le week end are also in there as well. Mon dieu…or Oh,la vache! (Holy cow!) – as we say…
      ; )

      • nic miller
        October 22, 2012 2:21pm

        Don’t forget ‘Le Nightclub’….I cringed every time I heard that as a teenager staying in Brittany (Paimpol) each summer.

  • Lis Brodie
    October 22, 2012 3:10pm

    This is a beautiful dictionary. Thank you for sharing! I greatly enjoyed this post.

  • mhs
    October 22, 2012 4:58pm

    the cherry on the cake for me was the académie’s choice for the omnipresent jogging (Sarko included):
    wait for it: “le footing”
    after that I felt a strong impulse to do some palm-face action gg

    • rouquin ricain
      October 22, 2012 5:42pm

      @mhs : Where did you see that the academy has approved “le footing”? – the ninth and latest edition which has so far been published up to “raidisseur” does not contain “le footing” and if their dictionary doesn’t contain it, it’s not sanctioned, not that that matters, i’m almost sure every single other french dictionary has it.

  • October 22, 2012 5:07pm

    So funny! This post reminded me of my french teacher in high school telling us about the “french word police” who decide which words (like “le sofa”) get to be added to the official french dictionary. It seems like there are plenty of people out there (especially on twitter) that want to join their ranks!

    • nic miller
      October 22, 2012 5:18pm

      I always liked the ‘name police’ who would approve/veto Christian names for children. When you hear of the horrible names inflicted upon some British newborns……

  • Debbie C
    October 22, 2012 7:21pm

    This was so fun David. I feel much smarter now.

  • October 22, 2012 8:38pm

    Thank you for this post. I have been taking French classes for the past 2 months and I’m happy to hear that I’m not the only one that finds verb conjugation so difficult!

    • Älâñ de Sydney
      October 25, 2012 9:18am

      Moi aussi.
      Just finishing my first year of French and the difficulty level doesnt let up week after week. A great challenge. Im preparing for my first study trip to france. I wish i had a copy of David’s dictionary so i can just point to the pictures when words fail me!

  • BelleD
    October 23, 2012 12:40am

    Having studied French for over 5 years (not that I’m any good at understanding any native French speaker), I am so thankful for sticking with it, because the whole conjugation of les verbes, has helped me quickly pick up Spanish (Latin America). After the rigors of la langue française, espagnol is really easy to learn ;)

  • October 23, 2012 6:05am

    such beautiful books!

  • h. s. gudnason
    October 23, 2012 12:47pm

    It’s cognate with grits! And the infamous Danish shibboleth (and dessert) ‘Rødgrød med fløde.’

    I’ve seen English versions of Danish cookbooks that refer to the pudding as “red grits,” which always makes me laugh at the incongruity with the American food.

  • Mike
    October 23, 2012 10:21pm

    My French teacher, aged 85 and still wearing leather pants, loves to remind us that “the richness of the French language is in the verbs”. And then she reminds us that she is Belgian, not French.

    • October 24, 2012 7:22am
      David Lebovitz

      Still wearing leather pants at 85? Well, there’s a joke out there – “Q: What do teenage girls in France do with their clothes when they’re done wearing them? A: They give them to their mothers to wear.”

      I’ve seen women wearing outfits at the beach that Lady Gaga would be bashful about wearing. But on the streets of Paris, some (not all) can certainly pull them off.

  • October 23, 2012 10:23pm

    Wow, great post. I adore those vintage images and this has set the bar high for me to try to track down a similar livre en Angleterre. Let’s see what we were doing back then with our food. Love your posts and want your life a Paris!

  • October 24, 2012 8:19am

    When I went to live in Italy, I discovered that in University, students used to learn what they called “Les 3 français” (The 3 french languages) : le français soutenu, le français courant et l’argot (bagnole, fric, baraque …etc …).
    That’s when I really understood the complexity of our vocabulary ;)

  • Lien
    October 25, 2012 3:21am

    Love these pictures! i guess i will buy a French dictionary, an old one :-)

  • Barry
    October 27, 2012 10:24am

    Johnny Marr’s name apparently was inspired by J’en ai marre and if you think about it Morrissey sounds a bit like “Moi aussi” too, maybe that’s a stretch though.

  • Vanya
    October 30, 2012 11:52am

    The idea that English has a larger vocabulary than other languages is basically a parlor trick. Sure, it’s nice to cram a dictionary with milions of obscure, archaic and borrowed foreign words that most people don’t know – but that doesn’t really enrich the language. If anything, English literature often seems to be burdened with pedants combing through their thesauri to see what 10 dollar word they can use to enrich their prose. French has more than enough vocabulary for one lifetime, and given the way new slang terms are constantly being created I don’t think the French are in any danger of running out of ways to communicate.

  • October 31, 2012 11:49am

    What a beautiful book. Who knew there were so many different ways to jump?

  • Christine
    November 1, 2012 7:44pm

    This is a fantastic post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and great photos!

  • Lisa
    November 2, 2012 12:55am

    Re: complexity of the French language. I learned a fun parlor trick in a bar once. Ask 4 French people to write “my name is” in French. Pretty basic stuff, right? You will often get 4 different answers. This reassures me, for all the errors I make on a daily basis speaking their language.
    As for the more-words-in-English debate — it’s a verifiable fact, not a qualitative judgement. I’m a translator and I deal with it every day. It takes a greater number of words to say something in French than in English. The genius of the French language is in les formules, the gorgeous loop-di-loops they use to say something that we, as a pragmatic people, say more directly, concisely.
    Vive la difference!

    • BobY
      November 2, 2012 3:23am

      Excellent comment. les formules and the loop-di-loops are my favorite part of the beautiful language.

  • Patricia
    November 2, 2012 4:18am

    Thank you for this delightful post. I can spend hours meandering through an old dictionary. Your commentary is, as always, quite enjoyable.

  • November 2, 2012 7:40am

    David: Surely you didn’t mean ‘It wouldn’t be French is there wasn’t drama’? :)

  • November 5, 2012 4:42pm

    An interesting thing about English is it’s ability to absorb new words, particularly foreign ones. A few french words in common english usage are à la carte, risqué, abattoir, vignette, potpourri and apéritif.

    p.s I love the illustrations in that book. Perfect for browsing

  • November 9, 2012 11:49am

    Hi David,

    Sorry to be the grammar police! But we do conjugate verbs in English, even within the same tense. So your example above of the verb “to think” wasn’t quite correct, as the verb does change when the pronoun is he/she/it.

    I think
    he/she/it thinks
    you think
    they think

    Although of course it’s nowhere near as complicated as French!! :)

    xox Sarah

  • November 9, 2012 9:55pm

    I think it was a lovely article. and unless that is a friend of yours, she should not get persnickety about one little grammar goof.
    I particularly as always, love the photos.
    thanks so much.

  • November 14, 2012 1:28am

    I love this post, as I love the French language. And the pictures of mushrooms are lovely.