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

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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4 Responses to Why does “merci” mean no in French?

  1. Phil says:

    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!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      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

      Like

  2. Rob Innis says:

    Thanks Vanessa I must try and remember that as I am hoping to make it to Paris in the Spring to visit Shakespeare & Co http://www.bookstoreguide.org/2007/10/shakespeare-co-paris.html

    Like

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