Meaning of "Je ne sais quoi": The Indefinable French Expression - Snippets of Paris (2023)

Wondering how where French women get that delightful "Je ne sais quoi"? All is not always what it seems. See why French people are ready to throw off the stereotype.

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We like to have a bit of a laugh once in a while, so I thought I would explore that oh-so-elusive concept of the French “Je ne sais quoi” and its meaning.

It is used to describe something that is indescribable, something that you can’t quite put your finger on. Very helpful I know. And these days it refers to a certain French aesthetic that is not entirely quantifiable either. So what does it mean exactly? Let’s find out, shall we? Allons-y!

☞ READ MORE: French Culture: 50+ facts and tidbits from France

The Two Meanings

Je ne sais quoi literally translates into “I don’t know what”. But French people tend to use it one of two situations, as follows:

1. The Ordinary explanation (Verb)

The first version of “je ne sais quoi” just means when you don’t know the answer to something. This can be rather simple as:

(Video) 🔵 Je Ne Sais Quoi - Idioms - Je Ne Sais Quoi Meaning - Je Ne Sais Quoi Examples - French in English

French PhraseEnglish Translation
Elle a dit qu’elle va aller au supermarché pour acheter le pain, le vin, et je ne sais pas quoi d’autre.She said she is going to the supermarket to buy bread, wine and I don’t know what else.
Quelque chose a changé, mais je ne sais pas quoi.Something has changed, but I don’t know what.
Les taches finissent par disparaître, mais je ne sais pas quoi faire pour éviter ces gonflements.The marks will fade away, but I don’t know what to do about the swelling.

As you can see, it is a rather bland statement. And indeed in France, we mostly use the phrase in this context. The verb is savoir which in French means to know.

2. The Romantic Explanation (Noun)

But over the years, to anglophone audiences, it has come to signify something else:

French PhraseEnglish Translation
Il est trés bon, mais il lui manque ce petit “je ne sais quoi.”It is very good, but it is missing that little “je ne sais quoi“.
Cette ville a un esprit incroyable, et même si Paris continue de croître, son coeur et son âme ont un “je ne sais quoi” qui me rappelle la chaleur d’une petite ville.This city has an incredible spirit, and even as Paris continues to grow, her heart and soul has that “something” that reminds me of the warmth of a small town.
Une broche diamant brillant de
mille feux ajoute un “je ne sais quoi” toutà fait féminin.
A glittering diamond broach adds that little “something” that makes it completely feminine.

Here it is described as a thing that is a noun, compared to a verb in the first example. It is a particular characteristic/object that the speaker is not sure what, that is different and/or missing.

It is that 2nd unquantifiable quality, that mystery, and dare we say a certain sexiness that is at the heart of why this phrase captures the imagination.

☞ READ MORE: The French Controversy: Who pours the wine?

The French Woman and Parisian Girl style

And when we speak of that romantic “je ne sais quoi“, it is usually specifically in the context of the French woman. With popular French actresses such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve crossing the Atlantic and entering the Anglo-Saxon pop culture, the expression has taken on a new context.

The phrase has come to be used more often the context of that unattainable French girl style, and particularly the Parisienne style:

(Video) what the original version of “Je te laisserai des mots” by Patrick Watson actually means :)

Elle a un certain “je ne sais quoi”.

Translation: She has a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

It is supposed to be the different way of dressing, wearing makeup, the seeming “effortlessness” of French beauty standards, compared to North Americans.

Now to be clear, this concept is a bit of a misnomer, because France is a country of 65 million people, and if you wander around France you will see that very few people look like Brigitte Bardot!

And when we are talking about “la Parisienne“, there is a reason that women in Paris look like they are not making an effort. The messy bun, the flat shoes, the lack of makeup, etc. tends to be because people don’t have cars.

If you are leaving your Parisian apartment in the morning, commuting to work on the metro, and then going out for a drink after work without going home, well you too are going to look a bit dishevelled.

On the other hand, you have a car and are driving around everywhere, you too can wear high heels, refresh your makeup as often as you want, and be perfectly over-hairsprayed! Given the circumstances, French women and popular culture have taken what should be a disadvantage and added their own insouciance (careless indifference) and adapted their style to it.

So with all that being said, as an implanted Parisienne, I can’t take this concept too seriously. To have some fun with it, I put together a few tips on how you that Parisienne gets her je ne sais quoi. It is elusive but with tongue firmly in cheek, here we go:

(Video) Je te laisserai des mots

Meaning of "Je ne sais quoi": The Indefinable French Expression - Snippets of Paris (3)

How the French get their "Je Ne Sais Quoi"

Yield: 1 Parisian

Active Time: 7 days

Total Time: 7 days

Difficulty: Easy

Wondering how where French people get that delightful "Je ne sais quoi"? Wonder no more, with these tips you too will be able to pull off that can Parisian insouciance.

(Video) je te laisserai des mots // patrick watson lyrics with english translations

Materials

  • Striped shirt
  • Classic trench
  • Scarf

Tools

  • One Parisian sneer

Instructions

Clothing

  1. Wear matching underwear.
  2. Claim to not own a single sweatpant or set of tights.
  3. Dress up fully before you go outside to throw out the garbage.
  4. Wear a black bra under a white t-shirt.
  5. Buy your spouse a mauve slim-cut pant.
  6. Laugh at tourists walking around with a beret.

With Friends

  1. Know how to say "putain" to express sadness, anger, joy, disgust, surprise, and confusion.
  2. Know how to pull off the multiple "la's" in Ohh la la la la la la!
  3. Do not respond to messages from friends who ask you if you are available for drinks.
  4. Plan drinks with friends 3 months ahead of schedule.
  5. Do the "bises" to everybody (man or woman).
  6. Never talk about money.
  7. Regularly complain about the government in power.
  8. Spend 4 hours over dinner complaining about the government in power.

Food and Drink

  1. Two sips of coffee in a tiny cup is fine, you do not need a Starbucks size mug.
  2. Line up for 20 minutes up to buy a €1.50 baguette.
  3. Buy a €30 wine from Nicolas (a fine wine store) when a €3 wine from the supermarket would have been fine.
  4. Have a piece of baguette, ham, and cigarette for dinner.
  5. Eat only soup in the winter, but declare that you don't diet.
  6. Don't be afraid to tell anyone if they have lost weight or put on a few kilos.

Around Town

  1. Carry a reusable tote bag everywhere.
  2. Ride a bicycle regularly without a helmet.
  3. Be confident enough to ignore the rules of the road when riding that bike.
  4. Know where to place your Pass Navigo in your purse/wallet so that you can scan through the metro without taking it out.
  5. Buy flowers regularly.
  6. Know that the correct way to carry your flowers in the metro is upside-down.
  7. Visit the doctor because your legs feel "heavy".

At Home

  1. Do not put curtains or blinds on your windows so that everyone can see your "je ne sais quoi".
  2. Live in a building with no elevator. It is good for the butt anyway.
  3. Scoff at people who move outside of Paris.
  4. Move outside of Paris when you expecting your first baby.

Notes

If you feel yourself losing your "Je ne sais quoi", book a flight to Paris immediately to re-immerse yourself in more Frenchness.

Shop Favorites:

  • Authentic Breton Striped shirt – by French brand Saint James
  • Classic trench coat – by Sézane
  • Scarf – by Saint James
Meaning of "Je ne sais quoi": The Indefinable French Expression - Snippets of Paris (4)
(Video) Je Anilo Prema Dhana | With Lyrics and Meaning | जे अनिलो प्रेम धन

☞ READ MORE:

So how Parisian are you? Do you have that “je ne sais quoi yet”? If you enjoyed that article, you can read more about French style here. A bientôt!

FAQs

What does the French saying je ne sais quoi mean? ›

Noun. je ne sais quoi (uncountable) An indefinable quality that makes something distinctive or attractive. quotations ▼ She has a certain je ne sais quoi about her.

Why do people say je ne sais quoi? ›

If you say something has a certain je ne sais quoi, you'll sound fancy instead of inarticulate. In French, je ne sais quoi literally means "I don't know what." It's used to capture an indescribable, special distinguishing feature, or to name some unnamable quality.

Do French people use je ne sais quoi? ›

French people do say je ne sais quoi, but it more often literally means “I don't know what.” French speakers might also use the more idiomatic meaning, but just be warned that throwing around je ne sais quoi a bunch will probably make it sound like you have no idea what you're talking about.

Is it rude to say quoi in French? ›

In English, if you didn't hear someone, simply saying “What?” would be considered informal or even rude, and the same goes for quoi.

What is je ne sais quoi translate in English? ›

Meaning of je ne sais quoi in English. French for 'I don't know what': a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described: Although he's not conventionally attractive, he has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him popular with the ladies. Want to learn more?

What does je ne sais quoi mean literally? ›

French, literally, I know not what.

Why do French people say quoi so much? ›

Using quoi at the end of a sentence is a colloquial French filler word. It doesn't translate well, but it's used to mean “I don't care. / In short / And that's all. / It's simple, let's not dive into it too much, it's as simple as that…”

How do you use je ne sais quoi in a sentence? ›

The party had a certain je ne sais quoi that made it really fun. Our city has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it feel really alive.

What's another word for je ne sais quoi? ›

What is another word for je ne sais quoi?
mojoallure
appealcharm
charismamagnetism
attractivenessseductiveness
beautydazzle
63 more rows

Do French people say je t adore? ›

The phrase “je t'adore” is a rarely used way to say “I love you” in the French language. You would rather use it when talking to a very close friend & family.

What's the most common French expression? ›

Common French Greetings You Already Know
  • #1 Bonjour ! – Hello! ( the standard greeting in French) (bon jour)
  • #2 Bonsoir ! – Good evening! ( replaces bonjour in the evening) ...
  • #3 Salut ! – Hi! ( a more informal greeting) ...
  • #4 Enchanté(e) ! – Nice to meet you! ( a standard expression when meeting someone for the first time)

What is a famous French saying? ›

Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup.

Literal translation: “Eat well, laugh often, love a lot.” Actual meaning: “Live life to the fullest” or carpe diem (“seize the day”). Use this positive French saying to console a friend that is having a hard time.

How do you respond to yes in French? ›

A simple “Oui” is the most standard, basic, and neutral affirmative reply in French.

How do you respond to Quoi de neuf? ›

Otherwise you can move the conversation along by replying rien de nouveau ('nothing new'), rien de special ('nothing special') or simply pas grand chose ('not much. ')

What does sais mean in English? ›

Sais (plural Sais or Saeson) (Wales, informal) Someone from England; Englander.

What is opposite of je ne sais quoi? ›

1. A close opposite of JE NE SAIS QUOI is. A. VAPIDITY.

What is the hardest French word to say? ›

Serrurerie

Brace yourself: The hardest French word to pronounce is the word for locksmith – “serrurerie“. It was the most commonly repeated response.

What do you call someone who loves everything French? ›

Francophile combines Franco-, "French," and -phile, "one that loves." Definitions of Francophile. an admirer of France and everything French. synonyms: Francophil.

Why do the French say chouette? ›

Chouette in French literally means owl. That means the cool kids on the streets are running around saying “Dude, that's so owl!” We do it in English too—when I say something is cool, I mean that it's interesting, not that its temperature is somewhere between warm and chilly!

What is quoi in English? ›

“Quoi” (pronounced kwah) in French means “what”.

What is the most romantic thing to say in French? ›

Je t'aime passionnément – I love you passionately. Je t'aime à la folie – I love you like crazy. Je t'aime d'amour – I love you with true love.

What is the strongest way to say I love you? ›

Either way, here are a few ways to say “I love you” to your bae to help you express your feelings.
  • I love you.
  • I love so much.
  • I love you a lot.
  • I love you too.
  • I love you forever.
  • I love you unconditionally.
  • I love you to the moon and back.
  • I love you with all my heart.
Mar 20, 2022

How do French people express love? ›

The French don't have to say it, either. They are happy to communicate their feelings with hugs, cuddles and kisses wherever and whenever they feel the need to express love. There is no debate about public displays of affection in France, where PDAs are celebrated as a fortunate consequence of love.

What are 3 greetings in French? ›

Hello in French
  • The slangy one: Coucou! Meaning: “Hi!” About: Coucou is a sweet, sincere way of saying hi, normally reserved for close friends and family. ...
  • The casual one: Salut! Meaning: “Hey!” ...
  • The formal one: Bonjour! Meaning: This failsafe greeting literally means “Good day”.

What is the easiest sentence to say in French? ›

Let's dig in!
  1. Bonjour. = Good morning. ...
  2. Bonne après-midi. = Good afternoon. ...
  3. Je m'appelle Mondly. = My name is Mondly. ...
  4. Je suis ravi de vous rencontrer. = I'm pleased to meet you. ...
  5. Comment ça va ? = How are you? ...
  6. Bien, merci. Et vous-même ? ...
  7. J'aimerais une bière. = I'd like a beer. ...
  8. Je suis désolé. = I'm sorry.

How to flirt with a girl in French? ›

Here are some typical phrases used to flirt in French:
  1. Excuse-moi, tu as l'heure ? ...
  2. Pardon, tu aurais du feu/une cigarette ? ...
  3. Tu es avec quelqu'un ? ...
  4. Tu veux (aller) boire un verre ? ...
  5. Je peux t'offrir un verre ? ...
  6. Tu viens souvent ici ? ...
  7. Tu veux aller faire un tour ? ...
  8. On pourrait peut être aller…
Feb 6, 2023

Why do the French say sacre bleu? ›

It literally means “sacred blue,” but it comes from “sacré Dieu” or “sacred God.” “Bleu” was used by people to replace “Dieu” in order to avoid the blasphemy of explicitly using the name of God.

What do French people say when something is good? ›

If you'd like to say “very good” in French, you'd generally say “très bon.” That said, there are some common informal and/or slang expressions that convey the same idea: génial, super, le top, chouette, cool, and more. Each conveys a general sense of goodness, greatness, niceness, or excellence.

What is a common greeting in France? ›

The most common greeting in French is the very useful “bonjour”, and “bonsoir”. The first can be used throughout the day, and the second in the evening. “Salut” is also widely used in a more informal setting. These are the most basic greetings that will commonly be learned in lessons for French for kids.

How do you say just say yes in French? ›

Oui is the standard way to say yes in French. It's simple and straightforward, and you can use it in all instances where you wish to express a positive answer. Example: « Tu peux venir ici s'il te plait ? » (“Can you come here please?” )

How do you pronounce a je ne sais quoi? ›

uk. /ˌʒə nə seɪ ˈkwɑː/ How to pronounce je ne sais quoi noun in British English. us. /ˌʒə nə seɪ ˈkwɑː/

How do you respond to Oui et toi? ›

Respond with a simple Je vais bien, et vous? (I'm doing well, and you?). You can also just say Bien, et vous? (Well, and you?). The key is the et vous (and you), which prompts a similar answer.

Why do French people say oui oui? ›

It's common in French to repeat the yes twice: “oui, oui…” Of course this cracks up our English friends, but it's common to double the yes to answer in a casual way in French. It doesn't have a specific meaning: it's just a way to speak and it's not like we say “oui, oui” all the time either.

What does oui tres bien mean? ›

oui tres bien. yes very good. oui tres bien. oui tres bien. oui tres bien.

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