14 French words that used to have a different meaning

Posted by Josh on 26th Jun 2023 in the blog in the category

The French language has evolved a lot over the years. We’ve lost a number of words along the way, while gaining new ones, sometimes from different languages. But what can be confusing for learners of French is that there are words which have remained in the language for centuries, but whose meanings have changed, for one reason or another.

If you were to go back in time – say, 500 years ago – many of the French words you might use today would have a totally different meaning. Some of them have only changed slightly over time – but others have undergone huge transformations. While nowadays no one would bat an eyelid if you were to say, for instance, 'Vous devez vous requinquer pour passer cet examen' ('You need to gather your strength to sit this exam'), someone from mediaeval France might wonder why – and be offended that – you're suggesting they need to 'fix their face' in order to sit an exam – that's if they know what an exam is in the first place!

Read on to discover 15 words that have changed meaning over time.

Word New meaning Old meaning
Abandonner (to) Give up (to) Give oneself up
Affinité Familial relationship Closeness, proximity (spelt 'afinité')
Bouffer (to) Gorge (to) Puff up one's cheeks
Bourde Mistake Lie
Casser (to) Break (to) Shake
Crachat Spit Military badge
Énerver (to) Anger (to) Make (something) soft
Fagoter (to) Dress badly (to) Gather twigs
Formidable Great, wonderful Scary
Gifle Slap Cheek
Loisir Hobby Free time
Parlement Parliament Discussion
Râler (to) Complain (to) Return
Requinquer (to) Gather one's strength. (Reflexive, 'se requinquer') (to) Fix one's face

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