As Alfred Hitchcock once said, « puns are the highest form of literature ». In French, this witty play on words is called “calembour” and it takes a certain level of expertise in the language to be able to pull it off.
Calembours make use of homophony (words that sound the same) to inject humour into regular expressions or even famous sayings. Here in this article, let me show you the ropes on how French people do calembours.
*Disclaimer: some of the puns may be cheeky or full of dark humor. It’s the French way; you have been kindly warned!*
On the phone with a French person :
– Allô ? (Hello/A l’eau – watery?)
– Non, à l’huile ! (No, oily!)
Saying Goodbye :
– A demain ! (See you tomorrow ! ( A deux mains/Using both hands)
– A deux pieds ! (A deux pieds/ Using both feet)
If you’re musing, they might tell you :
“Tu rêves, Herbert ?” (Are you daydreaming, Herbert ? – réverbère /lamppost)
Les bons contes (zen) font les bonzes amis.
Good (zen) tales make bhikkhu friends.
The French expression : Les bons comptes font les bons amis is pronounced the same way – the equivalent is : “short reckonings make long friends”
Qui n’aime pas payer l’opticien ménage sa monture.
Who doesn’t like to pay the optician takes care of their frames.
The French expression is : Qui veut aller loin ménage sa monture – Slow and steady wins the race.
“Monture” could mean “steed” or a “frame” (for glasses) : hence the mention of the optician.
Si t’as pas d’bol, t’as pas d’riz.
If you don’t have a bowl/ If you’re unlucky, you don’t have rice.
The French argotic expression “avoir du bol” means to be lucky.
Jeanne d’Arc, elle a frit, elle a tout compris.
Joan of Arc fried, she got it all.
It’s from a French Free commercial who read : “Elle a Free, elle a tout compris”.
Marie-Antoinette à la fin de sa vie, n’avait plus trop la tête sur les épaules…
Marie-Antoinette, at the end of her life, didn’t have a good head on her shoulders…
The French expression “avoir la tête sur les épaules” means you’re a steady, reasonable person.
Quel est le comble pour un jardinier ? Qu’on lui marche sur ses plates-bandes et qu’on lui coupe l’herbe sous le pied !
What’s the last straw for a gardener ? (Literally) for someone to walk on his flowerbeds* and have grass cut from under his feet!*, or for someone to step on their toes and have the rug pulled from under him!
Quel est le comble pour un électricien ? Que l’ambiance soit électrique, que le courant ne passe plus, qu’il y aie besoin de faire toute la lumière sur son affaire parce qu’il semble qu’il aie les fils qui se touchent et qu’il aie plus d’un incident à son compteur.
What’s the last straw for an electrician ? Literally to have a highly charged atmosphere, to have a bad current (“a bad chemistry” in English), to be requested that light be shed on his case, since it seems his wires are touching each other (“he’s lost it” in English) and has more than one incident on the (electrical) meter.
Victor Hugo, very distinguished author of Les Misérables, called calembours pet de l’esprit… while doing one himself ! (Pet/paix de l’esprit : mind fart or… peace of mind)… and even even invented the name of a city in order to get a rhyme in his poem La légende des siècles …
He even did the tour de force of this entirely rhyming couplet that would have been impossible in any other language :
Gall, amant de la Reine, alla, tour magnanime,
Galamment de l’arène à la tour Magne à Nîmes.”
Gall, the Queen’s lover, went, magnanimous tower
Galante from the arena to the Magne tower in Nîmes.
Paul Valéry, very high-brow poet as well, tell us that “Entre deux mots il faut choisir le moindre”. (“entre deux mots/maux”: choosing the lesser of two evils… or choosing the shortest of two words).
Pierre Corneille has been a joy for French pupils for centuries, thanks to that particular line : “Et le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule”… because of “ l’effet se” sounding like les fesses – buttocks in French ! Cheeky!
Marcel Proust has funny puns in In Search of Lost Time too: even though the Narrator finds them stupid and Swann dislike them, here they are !
Mais parfaitement, répondit la duchesse. C’est le seul arrondissement où le pauvre général n’a jamais échoué.” “Arrondissements” being the names of the Paris neighborhoods, and a pregnant woman will get bigger and bigger (s’arrondir in French).
Of course comedians use puns in French. But some of them are calembours specialists, like Pierre Dac, Pierre Desproges, Coluche, Laurent Ruquier, Vincent Roca, Sol (a character by Marc Favreau), François Pérusse, or Raymond Devos and some even made a show about it, called Les Grosses Têtes. Best of, anyone ?
It’s easier for parents to raise your voice than their kids.
Do you know what a hippie show is ? It’s a race hair ! – Horse show – Concours hippique and horse race – course de chevaux being the correct French expression
Kronenbourg is a beer trademark – and Chronopost are the name of the French packages at the post office. A la bourre is argotic term for being late.
I love to be in flagrante delicto ridens
En flagrant délit – means to be caught red-handed, in the act
Le Canard Enchaîné and Marianne are satirical newspapers who specialize in calembours in their titles, particularly thanks to the journalist Jean-Paul Grousset who works for the Canard Enchaîné.
A few examples :
The expression in French is Un peu d’air, ça fait toujours du bien
From the expression – “Leopards do not change their spots”. “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop”.
Alain Bashung used to say “the French come for the music, and they stay for the lyrics.” Indeed, him and Sttellla, Gérald Genty, and Boby Lapointe are all experts in the pun department :
“-On n’a qu’à l’appeler Thierry, dis je. Thierry, ça marche pour tous les sexes.
-Tiens ? s’étonna le docteur. Je ne savais pas qu’il y avait des filles qui s’appellent Thierry ! Je jubilais.
-Mais enfin docteur, tout le monde sait ça ! Et Neneh Thierry, qu’est ce que vous en faites? C’est pas une fille, sans doute?”
Stelllla (Jean-Luc Fonck)
“- Let’s call her Thierry. Thierry is unisex.
– Is that so ? The doctor was surprised. I was unaware that there were girls called Thierry !
I was thrilled.
– Come on, Doc, everybody knows that ! And Neneh Thierry, what do you make of her ? Isn’t she a girl ?”
Of course Thierry is a guy’s name in France, and Jean-Luc Fonk either alludes to Neneh Cherry (a Swedish singer) or even to the Egyptian queens Nefertiti/Nefertari.
“J’ai pris l’hiver en grippe”
I have a sudden dislike for winter – except the French expression “Prendre quelqu’un en grippe” is also the word meaning influenza (grippe)
“SOS Amor – Tu m’as conquis j’t’adore”
From conquistador almost sounding like “you conquered me, I adore you” in French.
Avanie et Framboise
Sont les mamelles du destin.” Bobby Lapointe – sounds almost like « Vanille et Framboise », vanilla and strawberry.
“Mon père est marinier
Dans cette péniche
Ma mère dit la paix niche
Dans ce mari niais”
My father is a mariner / On that barge / Ma mother says that peace lies / In that naive husband – the pun lies in the fact that those are practically the same lines, like in the Hugo rhyming couplet.
The range of calembours is almost endless. I’d recommend that you check out the other comedians and musicians I quoted in the article in order for you to look for the puns yourself. I’ll leave you with a song by Bobby Lapointe, with the lyrics so that you can pause and check the lyrics as you’re listening to the puns, who are far funnier when heard out loud!
Do you know any other good calembours that I failed to mention here? Share it with me and the readers by leaving a comment!
For high intermediate or advanced level French learners, you can improve your French by practising with my Advanced Level French Podcast. Check out it here.
Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +