Compound words in French

The Beauty of French Compound Words and How They’re Formed

French, known for its romantic melodies and rich vocabulary, offers a linguistic feature that can intrigue many learners: compound words.

These are words formed by combining two or more individual words to create a new meaning. In French, they’re more than just fun vocabulary to learn; they provide a glimpse into the culture and the language’s evolution.

1. What are Compound Words?

Before we dive deep into the French realm, let’s define compound words. They are words that consist of more than one base word. For instance, “toothbrush” in English is a compound made up of “tooth” and “brush.”

2. Examples of French Compound Words

  • Porte-monnaie (wallet/purse): Combines “porte” (carry) and “monnaie” (money).
  • Sous-marin (submarine): Literally translates to “under sea,” from “sous” (under) and “marin” (marine/sea).
  • Chauve-souris (bat, the mammal): This interesting word pairs “chauve” (bald) with “souris” (mouse) to describe the winged nocturnal creature.

3. How are They Formed?

French compound words can be:

  • Noun + Noun: E.g., arc-en-ciel (rainbow), which means “bow in sky.”
  • Adjective + Noun: E.g., basse-cour (farmyard), meaning “low yard.”
  • Verb + Noun: E.g., porte-plume (pen holder), meaning “carry pen.”

4. Importance of Hyphens

In many French compound words, hyphens play a crucial role. They link the words together, indicating that they should be read as a single unit, much like English’s “mother-in-law.”

5. Evolution Over Time

Language is dynamic. Over time, the usage of some compound words has changed. For instance, “télévision” used to be “télé-vision,” but as its usage became widespread, it transformed into a single word.

6. Cultural Significance

Compound words offer a glimpse into the priorities and focus of a culture. Take “après-midi” (afternoon), for example. It literally means “after noon” – reflecting a time when daily rhythms were more tied to the sun.


The fascinating world of French compound words is more than just vocabulary. It offers insight into how language can adapt, evolve, and reflect the soul of its people. For every learner, tackling these compound words not only expands their linguistic prowess but also enriches their understanding of the beautiful French culture.

With an understanding of compound words in French, one can further appreciate the layers and nuances of this beautiful language. Whether you’re a student or just a curious soul, diving deep into these words can be an enlightening experience.


Here’s a list of 30 French compound words along with their English translations:

  1. Contretemps – Setback (literally “against time”)
  2. Bouche-trou – Stopgap or filler (literally “hole filler”)
  3. Presse-papier – Paperweight (literally “paper presser”)
  4. Tournevis – Screwdriver (literally “turns screws”)
  5. Porte-parole – Spokesperson
  6. Tire-bouchon – Corkscrew
  7. Lave-vaisselle – Dishwasher
  8. Pare-soleil – Sun visor
  9. Porte-bagages – Luggage rack
  10. Pied-à-terre – A second home (literally “foot to ground”)
  11. Casse-tête – Puzzle or brainteaser
  12. Chemise-de-nuit – Nightgown
  13. Garde-robe – Wardrobe
  14. Porte-fenêtre – French window
  15. Passeport – Passport
  16. Essuie-glace – Windshield wiper
  17. Chef-d’œuvre – Masterpiece
  18. Garde-manger – Pantry (literally “food keeper”)
  19. Pomme de terre – Potato (literally “earth apple”)
  20. Savoir-faire – Know-how
  21. Haut-parleur – Loudspeaker
  22. Tirelire – Piggy bank
  23. Belle-mère – Mother-in-law or stepmother
  24. Beau-père – Father-in-law or stepfather
  25. Rebrousse-poil – Against the grain
  26. Lance-pierre – Slingshot
  27. Arrière-grand-père – Great-grandfather
  28. Demi-frère – Half-brother
  29. Rouge-gorge – Robin (bird)
  30. Demi-heure – Half an hour

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