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Ennui: Bothered with Boredom

Oldelaf’s latest song featured on Yabla, “Vendredi” (Friday), is a sort of satirical ode to boring weekends: 

 

Je m'ennuie

I am bored

Je me sens tout chose

I feel peculiar

Captions 42-43, Oldelaf - interprète "Vendredi"

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You might have been able to guess that je m’ennuie means “I am bored” here because it contains the word ennui, which the English language borrowed from the French as a synonym for “boredom.” But in French, l’ennui and its related words don’t only have to do with being bored. They can also involve being bothered, worried, troubled, or annoyed. In this lesson, we’ll see how these multiple meanings play out—and we promise it won’t be boring!

First, there’s l’ennui, which usually just means “boredom”:

Je meurs d’ennui.
I’m dying of boredom.

However, if you pluralize l’ennui (les ennuis), you don’t get “boredoms,” but “problems” or “troubles”:

 

On évite certains ennuis.

We avoid certain problems.

Caption 16, Le Village de la Bière - Ceci n'est pas un bar!

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Quant à Socrate, il a de sérieux ennuis.

As for Socrates, he has serious troubles.

Caption 27, Il était une fois... l’Homme - 6. Le siècle de Périclès

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(Speaking of philosophers with ennui(s), there's also l'ennui pascalien, or "Pascalian ennui," named after the seventeenth-century polymath Blaise Pascal. It corresponds to the notion of "existential ennui" in English.)

 

As we saw in the first example, the reflexive verb s’ennuyer means “to be bored.” But the non-reflexive verb ennuyer can either mean “to bore” or “to bother”:

 

Ça vous ennuie que je vous photographie?

Will it bother you that I photograph you?

Caption 36, Le Journal - Marion Cotillard

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Marc ennuie ses enfants avec ses longues histoires.
Marc is boring his kids with his long stories.

 

You’ll have to pay attention to context to determine whether ennuyer means “to bore” or “to bother.” In the case of the examples above, taking a photo of someone is probably more likely to bother them than bore them, and kids are probably more likely to be bored than bothered by their dad’s long stories. That said, sometimes ennuyer can have both meanings at once. For example, you could say that Marc is bothering his kids by boring them with his long stories. You could also say that he is annoying them—in fact, the word “annoy” is etymologically related to the word “ennui,” which should make this additional meaning of ennuyer easier to remember.

Context is also key with other ennui derivatives like ennuyeux/ennuyeuse (boring, annoying, tiresome) and ennuyé(e) (bored, annoyed, worried):

 

Y a rien à dire

There's nothing to say

C'est ennuyeux

It's boring

Captions 39-40, Melissa Mars Music Videos - Et Alors!

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Toutes ses questions sont vraiment ennuyeuses.
All his questions are really annoying.

 

On peut être fasciné, agacé, déçu, énervé par le ton, captivé par l'intrigue ou tout bêtement ennuyé...

We can be fascinated, annoyed, disappointed, upset by the tone, captivated by the plot, or, quite simply, bored...

Captions 29-30, Manon et Clémentine - Vocabulaire du livre

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Tu as l’air ennuyé. Mais ne t’inquiète pas! Tout ira bien.
You look concerned. But don’t worry! Everything will be all right.

 

Hopefully you aren’t bored, annoyed, bothered, or worried at the moment, but if you are, Oldelaf’s new video is a perfect antidote to all the various shades of ennui!

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And for more information on the usage and history of the word "ennui" in English, check out this interesting article

Vocabulary

Inversion: When Subjects and Verbs Switch Places

The normal word order in both French and English is "subject + verb," as in il dit (he says). But in certain situations, such as asking questions and using quotations, it is very common in French to switch the order to "verb + subject": dit-il. This is common in English as well: "They are going to the concert" versus "Are they going to the concert?" This switch from "subject + verb" to "verb + subject" is known as inversion.

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In French, most instances of inversion occur between pronouns and verbs. When a pronoun and its verb are inverted, the two must be joined with a hyphen:

 

Eh bien, mon garçon, dis-moi, que sais-tu?

Well, my boy, tell me, what do you know?

Caption 11, Il était une fois... l’Homme - 6. Le siècle de Périclès - Part 5

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"Non, je ne veux pas sortir avec toi", répond-elle.

"No, I don’t want to go out with you," she responds.

 

When inverting a third-person pronoun (il, elle, on, ils, elles) and verb, you must pronounce the two with a liaison (see our lesson on liaison here). Thus we have "dit-Til," "répond-Telle," "est-Til," and so on.

When a third-person singular verb does not end in a t or d, you must insert a -t- between the inverted pronoun and verb. This inserted -t- does not have any meaning by itself; its sole purpose is to create the liaison:

 

A-t-il peur du noir?

Is he afraid of the dark?

 

Combien d'années, combien de siècles faudra-t-il, avant que ne se retrouvent pareilles constellations?

How many years, how many centuries will be needed before such constellations can be found again?

Captions 3-4, Il était une fois... l’Homme - 6. Le siècle de Périclès - Part 6

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For third-person plural verbs, the final t (which is usually silent) is pronounced in inversion:

ils donnent ("they give," pronounced like il donne)

donnent-ils (pronounced "donne-Tils")

In other words, all inverted third-person pronouns must be preceded by a t sound.

The first-person pronoun je is rarely inverted, except in interrogative constructions such as puis-je... (may I...), dois-je... (must I...), and suis-je... (am I...).

Although not as frequently as pronouns, nouns can also be inverted with their verbs, as the above example demonstrates (se retrouvent pareilles constellations). In this case, a hyphen is not required:

 

"Non, je ne veux pas sortir avec toi", répond Christine.

"No, I don’t want to go out with you," Christine responds.

 

A common way to ask questions in French is to use a "double subject," in which a noun is followed by an inverted verb and pronoun. This can be seen in the title of the video Alsace 20: Pourquoi le bio est-il plus cher? (Why is organic more expensive?) and in this caption:

 

L'art, est-il moins nécessaire que la science?

Is art less necessary than science?

Caption 3, Micro-Trottoirs - Art ou science?

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Although the inversion method is a bit more concise, these two questions could easily be rephrased with est-ce que:

 

Pourquoi est-ce que le bio est plus cher?

Est-ce que l’art est moins nécessaire que la science?

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To learn more about asking questions in French, including some notes on inversion, see this page

Grammar

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