Tuesday, November 03, 2009

French underwear

That title caught your attention, didn't it?

(First let me take a moment to welcome the visitors who googled "French underwear" and were very disappointed to land on a website about language learning. No, don't leave so soon! You just got here! I don't think you're all perverts, really I don't.)

Because I haven't been around many native French speakers since Griffin was born, I rely on dictionaries, wordreference.com, and one child-rearing book in French to brush up my vocabulary. There are SO many essential words and phrases concerning babies and toddlers that I never learned in college! ("Griffin had a diaper blow-out all over his onsie while he was sitting in his bouncy seat," for example, or "We can tell that Griffin's entering the Terrible Twos by the increase of frequency and volume of his tantrums and the amount of yogurt that ends up on the floor during every meal as he conducts experiments in physics despite our assurance that yogurt is delicious and gravity still works, no you don't need to check just in case. Oh, and also because of the number of times we look out the front window to see if there are any Gypsies passing to whom we could sell him. Cheap.")

Anyway, this vocabulary word has been on my mind for a couple of weeks, ever since we started reading Un petit pot pour un grand garcon (a board book whose title translates as "A Little Potty for a Big Boy") and the grand garcon in question proudly wears his big-boy underpants at the end of the book. His "culotte." His culotte?

Now, when I lived in France and had to shop for unmentionables, I learned that men wear a slip and women wear a culotte. Hang on--so boys wear culottes too, but graduate to slips as they age? (What do little girls start off with, then? Culottettes?) Or have I just missed out on on the latest Continental cutting-edge undergarment lingo during this past decade and a half in the States?

It's not that we're starting to potty train Griffin--nowhere near that. But he likes to help me sort laundry and identify the garments, and right now he refers to both his father's and my underwear as a slip. I don't want to keep reminding him that my underthings are culottes if he's later going to get confused when his undies look like Daddy's but have the same name as Maman's. The dictionaries I have consulted only complicate matters. (I should have expected that--wasn't it the French who invented, or at least named, lingerie?)

So someone, please, take pity on me and my undergarment nomenclature dilemma (and my poor readers who have been subjected to waaaaay more paragraphs about undies than is appropriate for a G-rated blog with an educational bent). Would a native or near-native speaker of French familiar with men's, women's, and children's underwear please let me know what to call the darn things?

Thanks. I promise I won't write about this topic again for at least another year.


  1. I can only add to the confusion by telling you that men can also wear a "calçon", a boxer short...

  2. "one child-rearing book in French to brush up my vocabulary"

    I'm curious to know which book you use

    I can't remember how I came across your blog ... I'm really interested in the subject and find your blog very interesting. I'm investigating dual-language school options for my daughter (she's only 10 months now).
    With only 2 years of college French I'd be no help with teaching her to speak in fluent sentences, but perhaps I could work with her on basic vocabulary. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog earlier (www.bloggingonbilingualism.com). With a French hubby, I can tell we call the boys underwear "slip". They are 4 and 7. My husband sometimes says "culotte" but more when he is being funny or urgent - such as, "Ne fais pas caca dans ta culotte!" I think slip is perfectly correct, but for the finer points between all those words (seriously, such an interesting topic!), a real Frenchie will have to tell you, if they choose to divulge their secrets to us (ha ha).

    On another idea in your post, yes, I agree that raising kids bilingually teaches you SO MUCH vocab that you never learned in college! I have had the same experience.

    Lastly, I see you are in CO too - in Lafayette. I am so close - Westminster. Maybe we should meet? If you are interested, email me at: whjm2 (at) comcast.net.


  4. I was born in Quebec and now live in Costa Rica and am raising my children trilingual (French, Spanish, and English). I was raised (by French speaking parents) to call men underwear "calcon" (how do I get the "c" cedille to show up in blogger?) and women's underwear "culotte" or "petite culotte".


  5. Hi Sarah,
    We've referred to Ronan's underwear as "slip" from the get-go, but I've wondered the same thing. He calls my underwear "slip" as well, and I just recast that Mommy puts on her culotte. So confusing!

  6. Slip for a boy and culotte for a girl. That's what the nanny always said...I think a calcon is more like a boxer.

  7. Hey
    I am French and have an explanation (found you via Message btw): my grand dad says "culotte" for his pants...I think that must be an old word or something rural maybe?...then women not wearing pants, do not need to evolve to "slip" (which is a more modern noun i believe)...
    so to sum up, culotte used to be for guys only and designated pants (and only that bc they did not have regular underwear at that time...), women wore skirts...
    hope i'm clear!!!

  8. @Brigit--The book I referred to is called "Les premieres annees de la vie: Mon enfant de 0 a 6 ans" by Dr. Miriam Stoppard. It's actually a French translation of "Complete Baby and Child Care." It was published in 1995, so it's neither current nor culturally French--but it's very well illustrated and easy to read!

    And as far as your "qualifications" to teach your baby French--well, the way I see it is that any exposure to other languages and cultures is valuable!

    @Eve--Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow!

    @girl--"Petite culotte"--oh great, another distinction to figure out!

    @Dory--Thanks for commiserating. Griffin seems to have the culotte/slip thing down for now--but he's also started calling my bra a "culotte." Oh well.

    @Solene--Thanks for visiting and providing some historical background on French underwear! Come to think of it, my grandmother refers to women's undies as "pants," probably for similar reasons.

    I suppose people learning English have to deal with confusing clothing vocab too (especially with new-fangled garments like "boxer briefs" for guys and "boy shorts" for women)!

  9. I agree with Jan, because my French husband calls his boxers a "calcon". We call my 2 yr old daughter's underwear "culotte."

    Ok just asked Hub and he said little boy underwear is "slip", as would be a grown man's brief.

    For the record, I learned in school that underwear worn by any gender and age was "sous-vetement." So helpful...

    Hope that helps!

  10. One more "underwear" comment and then I'll leave this topic alone, I promise! (at least until Griffin is potty-trained and I want to announce it to the world)

    This morning, after I changed his diaper and tried to put a t-shirt on him, he pushed it away and said no. When I asked him what he wanted to wear instead, he said "culotte" (panties). I suggested "un slip" (as you all have identified as the word for boys' underpants). He agreed that he wanted a "slip," and I frantically pawed through the box of size-two-and-larger clothes in his closet until I found some hand-me-down training pants and pulled them on over his diaper!