French words you should know, part I

by jemma margaret

I happen to spend a good portion of my waking hours reading French. Since most of this is mathematics, it has little to no bearing on my actual French speaking and listening skills (don’t pronounce the “-ent” if it’s a verb I tell that voice in my head over and over). Every so often, however, a nice little word pops in and I feel a touch smarter.

Case in point “napoléonien”–yes, a dictionary might tell you this just means Napoleonic and refers to the time period and actions of Napoleon I. But please, take a couple moments and try to say this word out loud (you can whisper if you’re in public, but please remember that last “e” is nasal!). It’s a mercury ball of a word, and I prefer to interpret it metaphorically.


We Anglo-Saxons sometimes talk about Napoleon complexes to indicate small men compensating for that deficit with large egos. The French and the history books will assure you that in fact (en fait) 1.7 meters was above average at the time. Regardless of national sentiment, it is incontestable that Napoleon was extraordinarily ambitious and overextended himself, and thus I take that quality as the root meaning for “napoléonien”.

So one might say,

“All of my to-do lists are terribly napoléonien.”


“Her napoléonien outfit managed to include every color of the rainbow–and then some.”


“Please try to refrain from being napoléonien in the tennis match today; it’s only a game.”