French Friday: Spelling French Words in English

A sixth-grade girl won the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Not only Ananya Vinay is from Fresno, a central California city located near three National Parks (Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon), she is also the daughter of immigrants.

And the word that gave her the hard-won victory is French.

Ananya’s parents are very proud of their twelve-year-old daughter’s achievement. As a mother and an immigrant I understand their pride. When I listen to my children’s impeccable English it is easy to forget that they spent years of their lives with two parents who always spoke (speak) French to each other and addressed (address) their children in French too.

This month, my youngest daughter is graduating from the university and will own a Master in English. No surprise. English has been her favorite subject from day one.

In fact, starting in elementary school, her spelling skills gave her the possibility to participate to local Spelling Bee events. I had been an excellent speller in France, too. But only bad spellers made headlines in my French schools. Being a good student was expected.

Now, praising my young daughter’s good spelling made me proud like an American, but pushing her to practice words I didn’t pronounce perfectly well wasn’t fair to her. We found our own ways. If I was sure she knew the word in French I would say it in French, and she would spell it in English. Immigrants are crafty survivors. Our tactic worked, since my daughter won the first competition.

“Maman,” she told me afterwards. “You can come to the Spelling Bee, but please don’t cry. It’s really embarrassing.”

She could only remember me as a relatively decent English speaker. She would not have understood that her success meant a lot to a woman who had hoped to improve her English with evening classes at a California high school.

My daughter won several Spelling Bees, until ironically she tripped once on “homage. ”

Which she spelled “hommage,” the French way.

Ananya didn’t hesitate when she spelled marocain.”

So what does this French word mean?

In French, “Marocain” (Moroccan) is an adjective that designates people or anything from Maroc (Morocco).

In English, the noun describes a kind of dress fabric made of ribbed crepe. It can be used alone.

In French, we specify “crêpe marocain” to distinguish this particular crêpe from the other kinds (Georgette or mousseline for example). My mother was a seamstress 🙂

Also you don’t want to mix this crêpe with the other crêpe.

By the way, a crêpe marocaine, nicknamed crêpe aux mille trous (with thousands holes), is another kind of crêpe, made with couscous semolina in addition to flour.

Among some of the words successfully spelled by Ananya, I found three other French words that the Fresno-based newspaper the Fresno Bee listed and explained:

Acharnement: French word meaning ferocity

Cuivre: French word used as a direction in music

Gargouillade: catlike forward leap in ballet


The Oxford Dictionary characterizes the noun “acharnement” as being archaic.

In France, though, this is a common word.

You can work with acharnement, for example, if you want to obtain a crucial result.

A particularly mean person can also show some acharnement to destroy someone.

Nowadays acharnement is often used in a medical context. The “archarnement médical or thérapeutique” describes the heavy measures established to keep terminally ill patients alive, despite the fact that no amelioration of their health condition is possible.

“Cuivre” (singular) means: “copper.”

“Cuivres” (plural) designates the brass section in a music ensemble.

“Gargouillade” is one of the many French words used in the dance field, particularly in ballet.

Definition of “Gargouillade” in English: a saut de chat (quite similar to a grand jete) preceded and followed by a rond de jambe.


If only words from the ballet lexicon were selected, maybe I could have a chance to win the Spelling Bee, too.


  1. Oooo, I WANT some of those crepes! How pretty they are! Congratulations on your beautiful English and on raising bilingual children who excel in two languages.

    • I only make the French crepes. The handwritten recipe is from my mom 🙂
      My kids (now not so little naymore) understand French really well. Their grammar isn’t stellar but their oral comprehension is perfect. So they can function in France 🙂
      Thank you for another kind visit, Marian.

  2. Isn’t Ananya amazing? It has been fun watching her spelling journey. I haven’t had crepes in ages. Now I am craving them.

    • I was happy that a girl from Fresno (she goes to school in Clovis, I think) won. Plus her family’s background triggered my blog post 🙂
      I do less crepes now that my kids are no longer home on a regular basis. But they always ask for some when they are home. When they were younger I used to make some for dinner. Especially if their dad was away. It was easy and fun. I’m curious about the ones from Morocco. They seem closer to blinis, at least in size.
      See you around, Claire.

  3. Félicitations pour votre belle initiative et votre belle recette. André

  4. Fascinating. I only know Marocain as a person from Morroco, possibly due to Sartre —
    cuivre as copper and gargouillade from ballet. I had never heard or read the others or other definitions.
    I think learning another language is fantastic, and I think it’d be okay to cry with pride 🙂

    • In fact I was intrigued when I heard that this young winner spelled Marocain because I had no idea that this word belonged to the English dictionary.
      And gargouillade was new to me 🙂 I never took ballet! I know Gargouilles of course.
      I don’t cry easily but when my kids did well at school it was an other story 🙂

  5. A lovely bit of your past in the Central Valley, your family, and your French culture invite us to learn more about you and the French language. Thanks for sharing

    • Yes, I was happy that a young girl from Central California won! And she brought back memories of personal spelling bees. Although much smaller they were meaningful too.
      See you, Joan.

  6. I wasn’t familiar with any of those words so thanks for the introduction. I thought it was interesting that in practicing spelling with you daughter you would say the word in french and she would spell it in english. I really like this post.

  7. That must be quite confusing when you are a little kid with two languages in your head. I had enough trouble with only ONE and I still am every so grateful for spellcheckers!

    • It was often confusing and each of them found their own way to navigate through. Ultimately they manage to speak both 🙂
      English is their dominant language, though, while French will always be mine, I think.

  8. Bonsoir!
    on one hand, i’m so proud of these achievements,on the other, i’m dying to learn french. i’m an asian and i learnt french in school for 5 years and it had always been my favorite. i still love it but our school does not teach french after a certain level. i was good at it,as even english comes easily to me. i want to join L’Alliance Francais in my city and pursue french after i finish school. i just hope my dreams come true…one of them to be a french poet and live in france. Vive la France!

  9. I’m very impressed with the words your daughter had to learn from the spelling bee as I’ve never even heard them before! I also love reading about your unique perspective of learning to live in another country Evelyne.

    • Oh the words I listed are the ones the girl who won the national spelling bee had to spell. My daughter never competed in this event 🙂 only regional school events. I listed them because quite a few were French. Thank you for another visit, Andrea.

  10. Well thanks for the lesson, Evelyne, and congratulations to your daughter! Spelling has never been my forte. I can still remember being caught in the third grade with a word I had written on my hand! 🙂 I am a big fan of spell-check. –Curt

    • You surprise me, Curt. Your writing is so vivid and competent. But I’ve heard of fabulous writers who admit having poor spelling skills. We’ve all written words or numbers on our hands! Even whole math formulas for me 🙂

  11. j’aime beaucoup ce petites crêpes marocaines, c’est un délice 🙂 bravo et mes félicitations à ta dernière pour son diplôme , bises

    • Je ne connaissais pas ces crêpes en France, même si j’étais très gourmande de cuisine marocaine. Et particulièrement des pâtisseries.
      Quant à ma fille elle est mon troisième enfant mais ma dernière fille:)

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