French nouns that change meaning depending on their gender

Posted by Josh on 10th Nov 2023 in the blog in the french culture, learning french category

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As you'll be aware, French nouns are either masculine or feminine. But some nouns can be both. That doesn't mean that the two forms of the noun are interchangeable, however. Instead, the word takes on a different meaning in its feminine form from the meaning it has in its masculine form, and vice versa.

Of course, plenty of nouns have multiple meanings while only having one gender. You can usually figure out their meaning by the context they are being used in. With the nouns below, seeing which article precedes the noun can give you an extra clue as to its meaning. If the word is preceded by un or le, then it is masculine. Likewise, if the noun is preceded by the article la or une, you'll know it's feminine.

But to know which definitions are associated with each gender, you'll first need to study them. Below you'll find some of the most common French words which change their meaning depending on their gender.

Tour

You’ve no doubt heard of Le Tour de France. Well, un tour has a few meanings — from a 'circuit', to a 'trick', to a 'stroll' or a 'turn' in a game. But don’t confuse this with une tour, meaning a 'tower', as well as a 'rook' in a game of Chess, by extension.

Manche

Le manche means a 'handle'; la manche is a 'sleeve' (or the English Channel, if spelt with a capital M). Both words come from the Latin word 'manus', meaning 'hand'. You may have heard the expression faire la manche, which means 'to beg', and refers to the action of proffering one’s sleeves.

Vase

These definitions are quite a remove from one another, so don’t mix them up! Le vase is the flower-holding vase we know well in English, but la vase is the French word for 'mud'. You could have un vase full of vase, if that helps to think of it — though it doesn't make for the prettiest image.

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Somme


As well as the site of a famous battle, somme also has a couple of different meanings depending on its gender. In the masculine form, it means a 'nap', while in the feminine it refers to a 'sum' — as in a sum of money.

Crêpe


This tasty French pancake becomes a piece of cloth in its masculine form. Both words are used in English (the latter sometimes being spelt 'crape').

Chèvre


This one is pretty simple — which also makes it somewhat confusing. In fact, chèvre is always feminine, and it refers to a 'goat'. But le chèvre is shorthand for le fromage de chèvre, meaning goat's cheese.

Critique


Critique means a 'criticism' or a 'review' — at least in the feminine case. When it’s masculine, it means 'a critic'.

Physique


Another French word used in English, except this time it’s the masculine form that has the same meaning as its English counterpart. When used in the feminine form, it means 'physics', as in the subject.

Poêle


Both poêles are instruments for heating, but they have different purposes. The feminine form refers to a frying pan, while the masculine version of the noun refers to a wood burner/stove.

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Moule


Both definitions of moule are food-related, but that’s where the similarities end. Une moule is a mussel, and un moule is a 'cake tin'.

Mémoire

Mémoire is another word we use in English, meaning an autobiographical book that reflects on a period of the writer’s life (although it’s typically spelt 'memoir'). In French, it means the same in the masculine form, as well as 'dissertation' or 'thesis'; but in the feminine form it refers to 'memory'.

Livre


You might be more familiar with the masculine livre, meaning 'book', than the feminine form of the word, meaning 'pound' (both the unit of weight and the British currency). While we're at it, the French term for ‘pound sterling’ is livre sterling.

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