Why does “merci” mean no in French?

I was taught at school that “‘merci” means thank you in French, which indeed it does. So far, so good. You can’t go too far wrong with that, then. But when you actually come to live in France you find that, like many words, it carries other, subtle nuances: yet another trap for unsuspecting expats.

I was reminded of this last week when we attended our social club’s Christmas lunch. Yes, I know it seems a bit early, but they have sensibly decided to avoid colliding with the many other events that occur closer to Christmas.

I’ll take a little detour here from my main theme to describe our lunch. Fifty-eight of us rolled up on the dot of 12h15 to the restaurant in the village, which is very good at catering for this type of event. We paid 12€ a head, the 10€ difference being subsidised by the club. It would have been good value even at 22€.

We started with a kir and some delicious amuse-bouches and then moved on to soup (not a good idea to have too much of that in view of what follows). Coquille de poissons came next followed by roast lamb with haricots and a green purée that someone identified as broccoli. Large trays of cheeses were then brought round from which substantial wedges were cut by obliging waiting staff. No cheese paring there. We finished with an unctuous chocolatey thing with prunes in, topped with cream. All this was washed down with white and red wines from the region.

Much as I love food, I was begging for mercy by that stage. But coffee was yet to come. This is where I return to my theme. We sat with a group of French friends, but I went to chat with some English people while the coffee was served. A waitress asked one English lady if she wanted a coffee. The lady smiled and replied, “Merci,” at which the waitress turned away and gave it to someone else. I could tell from her discomfited look that she had actually wanted a coffee but the waitress had interpreted her reply as negative.

When we first moved here, it took us a very long time to realise that “merci” in those circumstances means no thank you. We plied countless workmen with cups of coffee they had actually declined until one day we asked one of them, “Does merci mean yes or no?” Then all became clear. The confusion arises because in English we might sometimes say, “Thank you” to indicate yes, with a nod of the head. In French, it is clearly the opposite.

Sometimes, the French say “Merci, non,” which helps to clarify the situation, especially when accompanied by a hand raised in a negative gesture. Often, though, the accompanying body language is missing.

So, if you do want the coffee/drink/whatever, say “Oui, s’il vous plaît.” “Merci” really does mean no.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

6 comments

  1. Hi, I was looking up a slightly different question when I found your lovely blog, please can you help….
    I had the impression that when we say ‘non, merci’ the French feel that the two words ‘non’ and ‘merci’ contradict each other, like
    ‘non’ – okay you don’t want the coffee.
    ‘merci’ – oh wait, you do want the coffee, what are you thanking me for, if not for the coffee?
    From your vignette, it sounds like I must have misunderstood?
    Do French people actually say ‘non merci’? Does ‘non’ on its own not sound impolite to them? Perhaps it does, so ‘merci’ on its own does the trick?
    Yours, confused of Cheshire

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting. These language issues are always a bit of a minefield. However, I’ve lived in France for 23 years now, so hopefully what follows is accurate, although I don’t guarantee it! The French formulation generally follows our own, i.e. “Non merci” = “No thank you” and “Oui, s’il vous plaît” = “Yes please”. You can’t go too far wrong if you use those, especially if you associate them with a shake or nod of the head as appropriate. Where I live in SW France, “merci” on its own is generally taken to mean “no, thank you”. But then it is usually accompanied by a raised hand or a shake of the head to emphasise it. I don’t want to complicate things, but among friends I have also heard (and use myself) “Oui, je veux bien” if asked if I would like a coffee, for example, after dinner. This means “Yes, I’d love one.” I should stress that every region in France has its language traditions and foibles.

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  2. That’s weird. I am french and I have never used “Merci” to mean “Non”. Usually “Non merci” (“No, thank you”), which means “non, mais merci de le proposer” (“No but thank you for asking”)
    Another possibility is that this is something from the southwest: People in southwest of France have some special expressions. For example, they don’t say “De rien” (“You’re welcome”), but they rather say “Avec plaisir”…

    Anyway, nice blog!

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    • I think you’re right that it is specific to the southwest. I have never heard it elsewhere. But, believe me, I have heard it so many times down here to mean “Non merci” and have seen a lot of British people caught out by it (including me at the start!). Also, as you say, they say “Avec plaisir” and not “De rien”. Ils sont spéciaux, n’est-ce pas?
      Thanks for the nice words about the blog. I do try to tell things as they are, but I am always pleased to be put right if I get something wrong.
      Cordialement,
      Vanessa

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