Whether or not an English-speaking Quebecer considers themselves bilingual, it’s inevitable that more than a bit of French has crept into the way we talk. This is especially true outside of Montreal, where many native English speakers live in primarily French communities. And, as our official languages evolve, there’s no denying the resulting turns of phrase add something unique and wonderful to our collective mode of communication.
Call it Frenglish or Franglais; either way, you can’t spend any amount of time in Quebec without encountering at some of these localisms, and more than likely incorporating them into your own speech.
1. Ben là!
Literally means “Well, there” and has about a dozen meanings, depending on intonation, including…
“Ben là! He actually said that?” (You can’t be serious!)
“Ben là! Why is this stupid thing not working?” (*annoyed incomprehension*)
“Ben là, you don’t have to make all that noise.” (Now see here!)
“Ben là. I guess they have a point.” (Well, as far as that’s concerned…)
Is often used interchangeably with “Ben voyons!”
2. Give me your coordinates
Nope, we’re not asking for your longitude and latitude position when we say that. It’s a perfectly normal way to ask for someone’s contact information.
“I don’t have her coordinates, but she’s probably on Facebook or in the phone book.”
3. Tabarnac (and company)
Everyone who has ever watched a Quebec movie knows that tabarnac, (derived from ‘tabernacle’, the little chest on the altar of a church where communion wafers are kept) is the Québécois equivalent of the F-bomb, and anglophones can’t resist its frustration-evacuating power.
“Ah, TABarnac!” – “DAMN it!”
“Je m’en tabarnac” – “I give exactly zero damns.”
“Charles is really en tabarnac” – Charles is very angry.
And speaking of F-bombs…
While tabarnac and its Catholic Mass-derived cousins are considered offensive enough to be banned from the radio, and are generally not heard in polite company or around kids, the F-bomb itself is totally banal. Even young children can be heard calling uncooperative technology “fucké” and expressing surprise with a “whatdefuck” and incomprehension with “I understood fuckall.” This casual use of the F-word could be due to the fact that other words exist for when you’re really angry. Or it could have something to do with the fact that the F-bomb is pronounced exactly the same as phoque, the French word for seal. Now really, how offensive could a seal be?
5. Close the lights
In the rest of English-speaking Canada, light switches turn off and turn on. In Quebec, for some reason, they open and close.
“Close the lights before you leave, all right?”
A terrasse (rhymes with “class”) is the outdoor patio where Quebecers go when the weather gets too nice to sit inside a restaurant, bar or dining room.
“If this nice weather keeps up, the terrasses will open early.”
We don’t organize cocktail parties or happy hours when we want to get together and have a few drinks, we usually just bring people together for a cinq-à-sept: a gathering at a bar that usually lasts from about 5 to 7 p.m., as the name indicates.
Quebecer #1: “We’re having a cinq-à-sept on the terrasse at the bar down the street tomorrow, if you want to join us.”
Quebecer #2: “Oh, definitely!”
8. In the moon
Switching languages all day long can give some people a frustrating case of Google Translate brain, leading folks to literally translate from French when they try to explain something in English. If someone tells you, “I should be arrived at about fourteen hours,” she’s probably expecting to be there around two. This gets even weirder when applied to idioms:
“I’m kind of in the moon today” – I’m feeling off in my own world, spaced out.
“He has other cats to whip”- He’s got a lot going on. The closest English equivalent would be “other fish to fry.”
“We’ll see what that gives” – We’ll see how that turns out.
“Watch out, there are some awful ostrich nests on that road!” – There are massive potholes on that road.
9. The chalet
It’s not necessarily at a ski resort and it doesn’t necessarily (if at all) have anything to do with takeout chicken. It’s what people in the rest of Canada might call ‘the cabin,’ or ‘the cottage.’
Quebecer #1: “Are you coming to the hot air balloon festival with us next weekend?”
Quebecer #2: “Can’t. I’m at the chalet with my dad’s family.”
A derogatory term used by other anglophones to describe a fellow anglo who takes the existence of the sovereignty movement as a personal affront, has never gotten over the passage of the French language charter, and insists, no matter the circumstances, that francophones speak to him/her in English.
Quebecer #1: “Sorry I’m late, this guy was yelling because he couldn’t get English service at Subway. In Lévis.”
Quebecer #2: “Ben là! These angryphones need to calm down a little.”
Traditional religious marriage is less common in Quebec than it is in other parts of the country, and many, many couples live in stable common-law relationships. They tend to use the word “conjoints” (partners) rather than “époux” (spouses) or “mari et femme” (husband and wife) to describe their partnership. The word is gender-neutral and implies a permanent, monogamous though unmarried relationship. Anglo common-law couples also use the term, pronounced à la française (con-jwann).
“Simon and Marianne have been conjoints for six years now.”
12. Guichet/Caisse pop
A guichet (pronounced ghee-shay) is an ATM, derived from the French guichet automatique. Many guichets, especially outside of Montreal, bear the green and silver logo of Desjardins, a credit union so ubiquitous that it’s often just called la caisse populaire (the credit union), la caisse pop or just la caisse (pronounced “la kess”).
Quebecer #1: “Is there a guichet around here? I know the restaurant doesn’t take debit.”
Quebecer #2: “I think there’s a caisse on the corner.”
An apartment with three rooms (usually two bedrooms and a kitchen) and a washroom— three and a half rooms. Apartments for rent are often listed this way. A studio is known as a one-and-a-half.
Quebecer #1: “I’m trying to sublet my three-and-a-half for the summer.”
Quebecer #2: “I might want to rent it from you.”
A corner store, which usually stays open late and sells beer, wine, caffeinated beverages and snacks. Anglophones usually call it a dep (from dépanneur). The stores sell alcohol until the legal limit of 11 p.m., although some may stay open and sell food, cigarettes, sodas and so on until 1 or 2 a.m.
Quebecer #1: “It’s ten to eleven, there’s still time to run to the dep for more beers if you want.”
Quebecer #2: “Sure, let’s go.”
15. La bise
Did you ever wonder what the word was for that air-cheek-kiss gesture that characters in French movies do when they greet each other? Wonder no more, it’s called la bise, and it’s the accepted way for two women, or two people of the opposite sex, to greet each other in Quebec, even among anglos. For those of you who are new to la Belle Province, la bise will soon become automatic. Then you will start doing it with your female relatives once you come back to your home province/country for Thanksgiving— and they will look at you very oddly indeed.
16. Vacances de la construction
Since 1970, construction workers in Quebec have been entitled by law to two weeks’ vacation every summer. Employees in many other sectors take advantage of this time to go on vacation as well. Each year, look up when it is and book your vacation well in advance.
Quebecer #1: “You think I’ll be able to get a room?”
Quebecer #2: “Doubt it. It’s les vacances de la construction. They’re probably booked.”
The Rest of Canada. It’s a little bit different.
Quebecer #1: “I couldn’t believe it when I was out West. No one walks from place to place, everybody’s married to their cars.”
Quebecer #2: “Well, that’s the R.O.C. for you!”
18. Yes, no, toaster
If you ask a francophone Quebecer if they speak English, you may get this apologetic response. These are apparently the first three words many francophones learn in English, and some don’t feel comfortable going beyond them. The French equivalent for anglophones, for what it’s worth, is ‘oui, non, pamplemousse’ (yes, no, grapefruit).
Quebecer #1: “I saw that film when it first came out, but my English was like, yes no toaster, so I couldn’t quite follow.”
Quebecer #2: “You didn’t miss much.”
Quebecers, no matter which language they speak, have a rich sense of their own voyageur history and an attachment to the St. Lawrence River (known simply as le fleuve) that seems kind of odd to people who aren’t acquainted with that particular natural wonder. Le fleuve flows from southwest to northeast. Even though we, like most Canadians, are more used to carpooling than portaging, we still tend to talk about travel to places along the St. Lawrence in canoeists’ terms, referring to the direction of the current. Hence, even though Montreal is southwest of Québec City and Gaspé is northeast, someone from Quebec City would talk about going up to Montreal (against the current) and down to Gaspé (with the current).
Gaspesian: “My friend is having a big beach party for St-Jean-Baptiste. You should come down.”
Montrealer: “Sure, why not?”
20. Inside the doors
This is a local Québec City one. Three massive stone gates (les Portes) separate Old Québec, the historic walled city, from the rest of Upper Town. When giving directions to a place in the Old City, people tend to say, C’est en-dedans des portes (“It’s inside the doors.”) Pro tip: Restaurants and bars inside the doors, which tend to cater to tourists, often charge three or four dollars more per item than places outside the doors, just a five- or ten-minute walk away.
Quebecer #1: Do you want to go to that pub inside the doors?
Quebecer #2: I’d rather not; I’m not made of money.