A lexicon of French builder-speak

Work in progress

In an earlier post, Surviving in France: 10 Top Tips, I suggested that being nice to builders was a good idea. I’m starting to regret it.

To say that we have had difficulty getting work done over the past couple of years is a masterly understatement. Crisis, what crisis? From failing to turn up to measure up the job, through omitting to send the devis (estimate), to neglecting to deliver on time (or at all), we’ve seen it all.

When I say ‘builders’, I mean anyone you engage to do something to your property. So, in addition to maçons, couvreurs, plâtriers, plombiers, menuisiers and terrassiers, it also applies to tree-fellers, swimming pool maintenance people and satellite dish installers.

All these tradespeople are bound by an unwritten code of practice. This stipulates that what they say is not quite what they mean. They also practise an arcane, Masonic ritual of nods, winks and hand gestures. So here is a lexicon of builder-speak with my interpretation of what it really means.

‘I’ll come on Friday’ – note they are careful not to say which Friday. You, of course, assume they mean Friday of this week. But this actually means Friday of any week over the next three months.

‘Things are very busy at the moment, but I’ll see what I can do’ – you’ll never hear from me again.

‘I’ll send you the devis by the end of the week’ – you won’t get it until at least the end of next month.

‘It’s not a standard size, so it might be hard to find one’ – I can’t be bothered to do any more about it.

‘We’ve been let down by the factory’ – I forgot to order it in time.

‘The wholesaler sent the wrong size, so we have to wait for a replacement before I can do the job’ – I ordered the wrong size, so we have to wait until I get round to sending it back and re-ordering it.

‘My wife/child/dog/second cousin twice-removed has been taken ill’ – I forgot that I had another job scheduled for this week.

‘I promised Mme X I would go there first, but I’ll be with you by 11h00, sans faute’ – it is very unlikely that I will turn up today.

These phrases are usually accompanied by the universal get-out clause, ‘normalement’, which covers them against all attempts to make them eat their words. See Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence for a comprehensive description of the accompanying body-language.

When they meet you in the street several months later, they don’t display an iota of embarrassment or contrition. Are their memories really so short? A French friend, while sympathising, suggests that life is just more laid-back in rural areas. Anything that requires too much effort is detrimental to their well-being, so they don’t do it. I don’t find this explanation entirely convincing, but am hard-pressed to find a better one.

Of course, they are not all like this. Unfortunately, just as you find a tradesman who appears to be reliable, he invariably decides to change metier or retire. I have to make an exception for our plumber, too. Whilst he is a masterly exponent of the builder’s lexicon when it comes to scheduled work, he always comes in a crisis.

When they do turn up, they usually work hard and don’t take coffee breaks. Sometimes, though, the job is rushed or inadequately supervised by le patron, who has other chantiers (building sites/jobs) to deal with. They need to be watched like hawks so that they don’t squash your rosemary (ours has never recovered from an assault by a mason’s truck), reverse into stone walls, drill holes in ancient stone lintels, slap ill-matching concrete over electricity cables or place steps the wrong way so that puddles collect when it rains. We’ve experienced all this and more.

I daresay there are similar problems in the UK, but I have been away too long to know. The solution? Do it all yourself. In fact, I’m seriously thinking about retraining as a plumber. 

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. Enthusiastic greetings, Vanessa:
    Yesterday I chanced upon your magnificant treatise roundly trashing the bureaucratic waste of French banking (among other institutions here)! Then, on your blogsite, there awaited more intriguing information about your personal and professional pursuits. I immediately signed up to subscribe, eager to read more — and also surprised by the many similarities that seem to pervade both our lives — albeit mine is at least a decade or two ahead of yours, and I already began writing my own fiction or fictionalized books back in 1998, after 30 years of corporate promotional output and work in editing academic research.
    Beginning to feel the freedom to write my own stuff after so long in harness was both a frightening and exhilarating experience!
    My husband and I are two ageing old writer farts, living since 2006 in the lovely perched mountain-top village of Castellar above Menton. Writing about French village life had not occurred to me until now, but, for both good and bad, there is a lot to reveal here. Perhaps you will inspire me to leap into this mixing pool of social, economic, traditional, clan-loyal, fascinating streams — and to tell what lies below the surface of endangered village living.
    In any case, warmest wishes for your own continuing dedication to writing.


    • Hello, Ellen,
      Thank you very much for signing up to, and commenting on, my blog. By now, you must have the impression that all I do is complain about France – which is not the case. I love it and wouldn’t go back to the UK. After 14 years, though, there are things which still irritate me. Anyway, I do hope you find something to interest you here.
      I was interested to hear of your life near Menton. You should perhaps start your own blog about it? I find writing my blog gives me many ideas both for fiction and non-fiction. If it also gives a few people some pleasure, then that is a great bonus.
      Please do let me know what you have written – I would like to check it out. It’s always good to meet other writers, even if only ‘virtually’.
      Best wishes,


  2. This did make me laugh, especially your pay-off line. But I have to say that through all the major building works we’ve done over the past three years over in Provence, our builders and their associates have been fantastic: on schedule and true to their devis.

    It’s had a lot to do with finding a really good architect who has project managed, and having French friends locally who have kept an eagle eye on proceedings, always telling us what they think is reasonable, and what isn’t. We’re on the last lap now, and our only horror is just how fast they’re all running through our budget – after so long I think they think it’s bottomless, but that’s another story!


    • Count yourself lucky! As you say, if there is someone overseeing the works I’m sure it helps. And tradesmen are more likely to focus on large-scale restoration works than on the small jobs we tend to have these days. They do tend to think Brits have bottomless purses…


  3. Brilliant Vanessa! Sadly all too true and all too familiar. The only other thing I’ve noticed is that ‘sorry’ doesn’t exist in their vocabulary.


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