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C’est pas mal vs C’est pas terrible

Ce n’est pas mal. (more commonly, C’est pas mal.)
Ce n’est pas terrible. (ditto, C’est pas terrible.)

Translating word by word, what we have are “it is not bad” and “it is not terrible”. They are conveying messages along similar vein, no? Where we didn’t think it’s good but it’s still, you know, alright I guess. Acceptable.

These phrases are easy to remember; the words not too complicated for a foreigner. Quelle déception! Instead, we would inevitably use them incorrectly. This is how cross-messages happened, until one day, light bulb moment – ding! Mais franchement, I think French people are trying to mess with our heads… ;)

It really isn’t that bad

Turns out, c’est pas mal is really often used to mean “it’s good/great/amazing/wonderful!” but whoooa, hang on, just hang on a minute. One shouldn’t overdo the enthusiasm – let’s toned in down a little, be more modest, or keep the other person in check so not too much praises are being heaped on his/her work/effort/discovery/good fortune/ability/super power. Just c’est pas mal will do. Certainly it is also used to literally mean “it’s not bad” but that’s less fun and contrary.

Case in point: I used to think the boy was being terribly pessimistic. Day in, day out, when I asked him how his day went, it was usually met by “it’s not bad”. (We converse in a mix of English and French, but more often in English.) Really? You have a so-so day all the time? I supposed that could happen, but life must be terrible if there’s never any good day. (And secretly, I was worrying – what does it say about us when there’s nothing he considers deserve a mention of “good” in his life?)

In order to up the feel-good factor, there came my small lecture on how he should try to be more optimistic about his day and his life, and on how positive outlook improves thing in all kind of ways, etc. And he even complied, starting to respond to my question that he has a good day indeed. Ta-da, results!

This is when it gets funny. Lo and behold, the French can’t literally translate c’est pas mal into English just like that either, because then we’d think they’re sad or depressed or something. I’m glad we cleared that up.

Sometimes it is just not good

Now, if you think c’est pas terrible has the same connotation as c’est pas mal, then you’re wrong. And I was wrong too, for quite a long time… (oops)

The first few times I heard the expression, I thought it weird that after proclaiming something to be “not terrible”, the explanation that followed would inevitably be quite negative. But shouldn’t something “not terrible” not be that bad either?

Oh no, it really means “it’s not great/terrific”.

Just try to Google Translate the word “terrible” from French to English. I’ll wait while you do that… Got it? See, you get the usual definitions that it’s “terrible”, “awful”, “dreadful”, etc but hey, near the bottom of the list, it also equates to “super-duper” and “wow”. Wow? Yes. Wow.

It appears “terrible” can be both horrible or terrific, but typically, when used in a negative sentence, it takes on the positive sense of great! C’est pas terrible truly is “not great”. It is downright baaaaaad. C’est pas très bien/bon.

Just think, of all the time when I thought I’d told someone that a restaurant was so-so, I had effectively said it was horrible (with implication must be avoid at all cost). And of all the time when I thought I was trying to say something was sort-of good but not terrific, I had also ended up saying it was just awful. In any case, either way, I don’t think I’m depriving someone of les bonnes adresses. When I discover something I really like, I praise them to no end. I think it’s pretty clear what my feelings are in these cases.

Ps: luckily, I have never replied c’est pas terrible when questioned how is co-habitation coming along with the boy. Instead, I picked up on (what I thought was) the modest c’est pas mal. Sheer dumb luck or innate Frenchness? ;)

Category: Local lingo, Musing

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2 scribbles & notes

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh God, this was one of my big mistakes when I moved to France first. I completely misunderstood whole conversations (at work, no less) because of the phrase “pas terrible”!.

    Another bugbear of mine is the difference between “plus” pronounce ploo and “plus” pronounced plooss…

    • Lil says:

      gosh, i have problem still trying to figure out when i do need to pronounce the “s” or not, and not just for “plus” but other words too. there’s always exception to the rule and i simply don’t know all the exceptions yet!

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