French Relationship Vocabulary

I ran across this story from the Fashion & Style section of the NYTimes thanks to a facebook friend:

Unmarried Spouses Have a Way with Words

An addictive reality series on M6

An addictive reality series on M6

That and watching L’amour est dans le pré last night got me thinking about the way French people talk about relationships.

The Times article is basically about how, in English, we lack acceptable words for an unmarried partner, with whom we have started to build or already built a life.

It was striking to me how much this is not a problem in France. The French have a number of words for a significant other:

Mon copain/ma copine: The simplest way of saying “my boyfriend/girlfriend”

Mon chéri/Ma chérie: My sweetheart, though not nearly so cheesy-sounding in French

Mon ami/amie: My friend, with a clear romantic/spouse-type connotation. This one is peculiar because, thanks to that letter a, it’s easy to keep gender-neutral in oral French.

un gars une filleMa femme: Typically this really means “my wife,” but I learned from Un Gars Une Fille that couples who are not married can use it. I find it a little weird to say “mon mari” in the same way, but French colleagues have asked me about my “mari” without caring that we’re not married. (Btw—I found Un Gars Une Fille good for learning French in general.)

Mon compagnon/ma compagne: I’ve only heard this used once, actually, but it made perfect sense, referring to an unmarried couple I know who have three children together.

L’homme/la femme de ta vie: The love of your life (this may be the only one I like better in English!)

Mes beaux-parents: Not about your partner but about your in-laws, who are called your in-laws as soon as you start dating and not just after the wedding. I’ve been known to say it this way to an American friend or two in English, and they typically ask, “When did you get married?”

mon cheriFor the moment I use something of a mix between mon copain, mon chéri, and mon ami depending on whom I’m talking to. Mon copain feels a tad too young and unserious, but with other young people it makes sense. At work I tend toward mon ami, and in other situations mon chéri works as something of a compromise between the two.

Did I forget any? If you’re in a bilingual couple, what do/did you use before marrying?


7 thoughts on “French Relationship Vocabulary

  1. After seven years with Fab, I finally started saying “mon mari” with my customers because I felt a bit ridiculous saying “mon copain” or “mon ami”. And when I explained to my American co-workers that the pacs was sort of like marriage, they started calling him my husband….which kind of back-fired in the end, because now they all think I am divorced! :/

    I am so happy to actually be married now and not have to worry about that kind of stuff any more!

  2. Oh lord, the PACS… I didn’t even think about that one. It’s true that it’s awfully complicated to explain to people who aren’t French. I even have a German friend who asked me if it was the state equivalent of a wedding.

  3. Copain/copine mostly, though his friends would call me his “femme” and he was my “homme” as in “il est où ton homme ce soir?”
    3+ months later, we seem to have gotten more used to mari/femme, but with friends the homme thing is still used. And the MIL never seemed to call me her belle fille until after the wedding, I was “la copine de mon fils.” She called her ex her “compagnon” which definitely sounds better to me than copain/e for older adult relationships!

    • Yeah I don’t think J’s mom has ever called me her belle-fille, I think she usually says “la copine de J” or just my name. But I think it might work like that in English too, belle-fille is kind of vague…
      And I did forget about “mon homme,” colleagues have used that with me too. Handy.
      Thanks for the input!

  4. We just use copain/copine, but it hasn’t been that long for us yet I guess. If we ever were to get PACSed or something, I don’t even want to think about explaining that one to people who don’t know France. My mom will never get it. That I know.

  5. I never really explained or even mentioned the PACS to most people. It was such a practical matter for us that it didn’t seem worth explaining. I think it’s sort of what you make of it.

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