Je ne sais quoi: The Elusive French Meaning

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. So what does it mean exactly? Let’s find out!

☞ 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:

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” tout à 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 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 woman, and particularly the Parisienne:

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.

☞ READ MORE: How to say Nice to Meet You in French (The Cool version)

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:

illustrated print of a french girl in striped shirt

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.

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

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☞ READ MORE: Living in Paris: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

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!

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Je ne sais quoi: The Elusive French Meaning

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