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A Hiker's Guide to 7 French Words With No English Equivalent

France Languages
by Carrie Speaking Jul 14, 2017

SOME WORDS are untranslatable. They have come to carry such a specific meaning that few other languages have exact equivalents. Paradoxically, these “untranslatables” have often hiked their way into new languages. Let’s follow the trail of 7 French words.

1. Pack all your stuff into huge backpack: Barda

A barda is an oversized, heavy backpack, typically like the one you shoulder for a long backcountry hike. It is originally a military term brought into French in the 19th century from Arabic berdâa “packsaddle”.

2. Arrive at your destination: Dépaysement

Dépaysement conveys the feeling of “unusualness” one feels when arriving at a place that is very different from one’s usual home. It refers to the change in habits, scenery, and climate that trigger this feeling.

Dépaysement is different from “homesickness”, as it doesn’t indicate any nostalgia or negative feeling. Dépaysement can also be something you’re looking for during a trip. It is derived from French pays “country”, and literally means “un-country-fication”.

3. Go on a hike: Crapahuter

Crapahuter means going on a long backcountry hike on difficult terrain. This is originally French military slang that ended up in the everyday language. It comes from crapaud, “toad”, the name of an animal but also of a training device with which you exercised, looking like a toad.

4. Stop for a snack: Gourmand

Someone who is gourmand loves to eat refined food, generally made with very sweet or rich ingredients, in reasonable and appropriate proportions. This iconic French word is derived from the no-less iconic word gourmet, and dates back to the 14th century…when it was borrowed from English grom (today become groom) which at the time meant “valet in charge with the service of wine”.

5. Use this break to explore your surroundings: Flâner

Flâner means to daydream by walking around in a leisurely, aimless way (without the sense of losing one’s bearing conveyed by “wander”). As opposed to what many people think, flâner is actually very recent in French: it was borrowed in the 19th century from Norman French, and ultimately comes from Old Norse flana “to get into something heedlessly”.

6. Discover something inspiring: Trouvaille

Trouvaille is an unexpected discovery that is original and interesting. It can refer to an object (like that nice abandoned hat you found in a tree) or a place (like a secret bivouac spot). Trouvaille is poetic to the core, as it is derived from the French verb trouver “to find”, itself derived from Vulgar Latin tropare “to find the proper words to compose a poem”. Incidentally, this was precisely the job of trouveres and troubadours, those traveling medieval poets in France.

7. You set up camp for the night: Bivouac

Bivouac was borrowed from French into English and means “a temporary camp”, typically a one-night camp during a backcountry hike. This word is actually more at home in English than in French, as it was borrowed into French in the 17th century from Alemanic German biiwacht which referred to the reinforcements for a guard. After its slight change of form and meaning, the word traveled back from French to the other European languages (including English).

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