“Mademoiselle, votre Petit-Copain”: Dead Words

Something was finally brought to my attention at the dinner table last night. I had noticed that whenever I spoke of a guy friend, whether it was in the context of someone in my study abroad program or someone from high school or university, my host family would always ask if I was referring to a boyfriend. God no! I was beginning to wonder if they really wanted to pry into my personal life or whether I was saying somehing wrong. They finally told me yesterday, “Tu ne peux pas décrire tes amis!” I asked them what I was saying wrong, and they explained it to me.

But before I get in to that, I need to describe the way I learned it in school. I was told that you could use any of these words to indicate a friend: ami, amie, copain, copine. Ami and copain were for males and amie and copine was for females. Boyfriends were called petit-ami or petit-copain and girlfriends were called petite-amie or petite-copine. Clearly I stayed away from the petits when describing friends, but nevertheless my host family occasionally asked me, “C’était ton ‘boyfriend’?” in English. I swear they say nothing else to me in English so every time I’d be taken aback.

Now for the explanation. They told me that there actually exists a distinction between ami and copain. Ami/e is used for good old friends that you really trust. Copain/copine is used for newer friends or acquaintances. Besides that, here is what I was always getting wrong: as an English-speaker, I call friends “my friends.” In French, friends are just friends, they are not yours. So you refer to them as “un ami” as opposed to “mon ami.” They are simply a friend. However, when you talk about someone you are dating, you call him “mon ami” or “mon copain.” Only then are the two terms interchangeable. They have stopped using petite-copine/petit-copain and petit(e)-ami/e because the terms have had a pejorative connotation as of late. Just like how they have now taken mademoiselle out of everyday conversation because there is no equivalent for unmarried men. Sucks because I think “mademoiselle” is a beautiful word and “madame” makes me feel old. Article on Mademoiselle.

Taken from BBC