Some days the bear eats you, some days you eat the bear

Some days the bear eats you, some days you eat the bear: bear-related vocabulary in French.

Some days the bear will eat you,

Some days you eat the bear.

–Joan Armatrading, Eating the Bear

2015-12-26 12.56.36
Les deux oursons, “The two bear cubs,” a tux/party dress rental store near the apartment that I rent when I’m in Paris. Picture source: me.

There’s a store in my little neighborhood whose sign has always puzzled me somewhat.  In order to understand it, I needed to learn bear-related vocabulary in French:


  • l’ours (nom masculin): male bear; boor, curmudgeon.
  • l’ourse (nom fémenin): female bear.  Pronounced [urs], not [urz].
  • l’ourson (nom masculin): bear cub; teddy bear.
  • le nounours: teddy bear.  Pronounced [nunurs]–the s is not silent, as you would expect it to be.

L’ourson (teddy bear) is not to be confused with:

  • l’oursin (nom masculin): sea urchin.  Yes, they are eaten in France, not just in Japan.

Some of the words meaning “bear” are used in idiomatic expressions:

  • un vrai nounours: “a real teddy bear.”  The French Etc. web site explains the expression like this: “un vrai nounours means ‘a real gem’…un vrai nounours is used to describe a person who is really sweet, going along with everything easily.”
  • un vrai ours: “a real bear.”  French Etc. explains it like this: “‘a real boor’, a person who isn’t sociable.”

“Bear” has some interesting slang meanings in English.  Here are a couple:

  • A difficult situation or thing.  “I have to finish a project proposal by New Year’s Eve–it’s a bear, because I have to find a way to smoothly integrate high-throughput assay analysis and theoretical linguistics.”
  • A gay man who is big, bearded, and hairy.

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