Canon: How to compliment a French Woman

A lesson in adjectives: windows are "charmante", women are "canon". You wouldn't say a window is canon, but you could say a woman is charmante. Read on and learn about the French art of complimenting. Photo taken this week in Orange (Vaucluse).

canon [kah noh(n)]

    : gorgeous

There are other senses of the word.. for today we'll focus on the one above

elle/il est canon = she/he's gorgeous
les canons de la beauté = canons of beauty 

Audio File: listen to today's French word and phrase: Elle est canon Download MP3 or Wav


A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

How to Compliment a Frenchwoman

Mom and I are in the village pharmacy, having made a beeline here from the doctor's office. We're in luck when one of the three counter stations instantly opens. We step up to the comptoir and I hand over the scribbled ordonnances.

As the pharmacist studies the doctor's prescriptions, Mom studies the pharmacist and when the latter turns and disappears into the stock room Mom is breathless. "My God. She's beautiful!"

"I know," I respond, matter-of-factly.

"She looks as though she could walk right out of this vineyard town... and onto the big screen!" Mom is wowed.

"Did you see her hair?" Mom continues, and I recall the thick brown boucles that fall to the pharmacist's waist.

"Chestnut-colored," I guess.

"With golden highlights!" Mom corrects. "And not a stitch of makeup. She is a classic beauty -- like Audrey Hepburn--only, she must be 5'11!"

"I know, Mom. She is gorgeous." I conclude.

"Well, haven't you ever told her that?"...

I think about the pharmacist -- she is what the French would classify as canon. If she is this beautiful... chances are she is the last one to have heard about it. After all, the French do not dish out compliments as the folks back home do--at least not to strangers. But this isn't to say that they do not praise one another, or strangers--they just do so discreetly, almost imperceivably.

How to explain this to my mom, who is poised to shower compliments just as soon as the pharmacist returns? Mom has already done the impossible (by reaching for those chestnut curls! I can't believe she ran her fingers through the pharmacist's hair, as a mother would her own daughter!).

"Mom, the French are..." (and here I pause to find the correct word...) "...the French are a little reserved that way!"

Mom is not impressed with this latest French-etiquette lesson, which is quickly dismissed, and, by the time the pharmacist returns, I feel the need to explain the goggle-eyed woman to my right. If I don't say something right away, Mom will say it for me--in her own extravagant way.

And so I blurt it out. "Ma mère pense que vous êtes magnifique!"

As if Mom could understand my French (which she cannot) she looks at me expectantly, until I've coughed up the entire compliment:

" c'est vrai!"

Were we French, Mom and I would have waited until the pharmacist walked off and, while she was still within earshot, we would have let her hear our admiring thoughts: qu'est-ce qu'elle est belle cette fille! Elle est charmante!

Though we have yet to master the French art of complimenting, our Mom-thinks-this approach seemed to have the same effect... and that palpable French reserve that I had so often felt began to break a little bit in time to soften or melt.

French Vocabulary

le comptoir = counter

une ordonnance = prescription

une boucle = curl

Ma mère pense que vous êtes magnifique! = My mother thinks you are magnificent

Qu'est-ce qu'elle est belle cette femme! = She is so beautiful, this woman!

Elle est charmante! = She is charming!

Everyone thinks their mom is canon - and I, especially so! Sorry for the dark image (I should have used the camera flash!). This photo of Mom, aka Jules, was taken just this morning, before she left on her 24-hour voyage home to Mexico! Here she is readjusting her turtleneck (earlier, she had on a camisole beneath her Frida cape! I told her to cover up - because I know she gets cold on airplanes).


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Suzanne Dunaway

I'm a Texan and threw out complitments liberally, until I moved to France....
reserve is a good word to remember, but even the French respond to...well...response! Their austerity is often just shyness or fear of making a mistake, which is why so many French will not attempt English, even when they speak it perfectly well for communicating. As for compliments, someone told me once that I made "enviable bread" and I loved was said with great affection and I use it myself, the word enviable. Used in a good way. Envy in the other sense goes into the poubelle.


That's a beautiful photo of your Mum Kristin...and she is stunning.I know you'll miss her.I lost my Mum four weeks ago and wish she was still here.
Love to you both

Lynn at Southern Fried French

Kristen, your mom is canon---you too!

I love it that your mom ignores the famous French reserve and just jumps in. We have an American friend who does that too, and he often (though not always) breaks right through. I'm more timid about it--fear of that cold, withering look maybe?--but I think my friend and Jules are on the right track.

Bill in St. Paul

My wife is one to give out deserved compliments to strangers, too. When we were in Provence a month ago she got a variety of reactions to her compliments. Some reactions were due to the language barrier (my wife doesn't speak French), but from those who purportedly spoke/understood English their reaction often seemed to be "silly American" with a crooked smile, but it may have been because they didn't know how to react to a compliment if, as you pointed out, Kristin, the French aren't big on overt compliments.


I have the sense that you will greatly miss Jules--what a fantastic LADY. Have a wonderful week of great memories. Mary

Amber...Peoria, IL

For a "reserved" population, everyone always seems friendly to me. When I am in France, it seems everyone says "Bonjour" when first they greet you, at least I do! Maybe because I am a foreigner and I like to say "bonjour"...I don't know that I greet people the same in the US...Is it me or am I right about that?

I do, however, give a lot of compliments. No matter race, color or creed, I think a compliment can make a person's day, even a reserved French person. (Even if she didn't show it, the pharmacist had to feel good about your/Jules compliment)

One of the best compliments I ever received was in college. I went to the University of Illinois and I was in line at a soup and bread store to buy lunch. As I was leaving, a guy walked up to me and said "I'm not trying to hit on you, but you have the most beautiful eyes". I said "thank you" and he walked away. I never saw him again, but he made this French major's day and I can see that moment in my mind's eye and it makes me feel good to this day! Thanks for helping me reminisce!

There are some things in life you can't go wrong with and I believe a compliment is one of them!

I know you'll miss having your Mom around...I am headed to Alaska next week to see my Dad, who like Jules, have never met a stranger! Looking forward to the trip..

Kristin Espinasse

Angela, sending deepest sympathies to you--and a big hug, too! Trusting that your dear Mum is very near, and knowing that lovely memories will continue to embrace you at this difficult time.

Bill, I think Suzanne describes it best (the reason behind the crooked smile after a compliment) : Their austerity is often just shyness

Mary, you are right on about that greatly missing part. I felt a great weight of sadness when Mom left this morning. And when the cicadas chimed in for the first song of the season, I could only feel worse that Mom had missed it!

Amber, have fun in Alaska with your family! 

Bruce T. Paddock

Amber -

Saying, "Bonjour, madame," or "Bonjour, monsieur," is pretty standard in France, but it's not outgoingness, it's just politeness. Many French people think Americans are very rude when we walk up to the counter and say, "I'd like a newspaper, please," without greeting the clerk first.

It's been my experience that, in general, the French are a bit more reserved than Americans, and most Americans are more reserved than Jules — which is what makes her such a delight.

Eileen deCamp

Hi Kristin,
In my experiences living in Europe, I found most Europeans to be reserved. They are embarrassed by compliments. I feel that way too if someone gives me a compliment. I have learned to just say "thank-you".
Lovely photo of Jules!

Helen Ruston

At a quilt show recently in Pine, AZ I complimented a woman on her "killer legs." Yep..not one ounce of cellulite. A group of women joined me and the young woman with the legs told us she works at a nursery and is constantly on the move, etc..Lots of smiles all around.

I remember someone told me (eons ago) that I looked like Igrid fact, more than a few. I am Irish..but, it got me thinking maybe somewhere back there a Viking had invaded my ancestral home in Ireland!

I do give compliments to perfect strangers..if it doesnt's make their day, it makes mine. Eyes especially charm me.

Hope your mom had a good trip back..she looks a little wistful there..

Jan in Colorado

Your and France's loss will be John's and Mexico's gain. I wonder if she'll end up in first class on the way back! Gorgeous picture of a truly charming lady, Kristin.

Tom Sciance

I headed a group of U.S. engineers in France back in the '70's. One morning one of them came to work with a bag of patisserie and a question. He explained to our French secretary that he had merely told the girl in French that she had good patisserie, and the girl looked astonished but pleased, put in some extras,and came out from behind the counter and held the door open for him. He didn't understand the big reaction. "What did you say, exactly?" the secretary asked. When he told her, she explained: "What you actually said was, 'You have a pretty little smile.'"


Chere Kristin,
During our time of living and working in France it seem to me that the French, as most people, simply respond to sincerity. My husband was a "I yam what I yam" kind of guy and was tremendously liked by his neighbors and colleagues. While I wasn't quite as outgoing as your lovely mother (envy here) I didn't try to restrain my enthusiasm for being there. To some of my more 'chi-chi' American friends it may have seemed a bit unsophisticated but I don't believe the French shared that opinion. As a result I have treasured friendships that have endured throughout the years and across the miles. I hope Jules has a safe trip home. xoxox

Pat Cargill

I am thinking of you this morning as you feel the emptiness at your Mother's departure. It is a bittersweet times and maybe a cup of tea in a contemplative spot - by the pool? - sending loving travel thoughts ("traveling mercies" a la author Anne Lamotte) will help.

To Angela, my sympathies on the loss of your Mother. It is a huge transition, which I am still living through having lost my Mother December 13. My thoughts are with you, too.

As for compliments, I am a card-carrying Beleiver. Especially to those not often on the receiving end. These are sincere, not offered lightly, in some Pollyanna chatter. I want to find something good out there, especially for those who may not, if ever, receive compliments. There is much to appreciate beyond typical beauty, although that, too, is appreciated. I compliment on good service, thoughtfulness, etc. I always appreciate compliments but it has taken my a lifetime of being able to ACCEPT them. My dim view of myself prevented my believing there was anything to be appreciated for...silly me. I find many Americans, especially women, do not accept compliments willing and even try to talk you out of them, handing them back to you on a "verbal silver platter." Silly, indeed. Self esteem seems to be the factor to a large degree. Perhaps the French have a higher sense of themselves, more confidence.

At any rate, my compliments - as ever- to you beautiful Kristen for this excellent blog which opens The Circle of Life to us, your faithful readers, in an ever-widening arc. Tu es belle, inside and out (don't have time to look up words!).

Toujours, Pat

Pat Cargill

p.s. couldn't stand it, had to look it up-- Google Translate sez:

vous êtes belle à l'intérieur et à l'extérieur


Well, my mother (and I) would both say that your mother is gorgeous;as are you and your sister. I work with a lot of senior citizens. The ladies especially are flattered by compliments. I only give genuine ones. They love to be asked if they need a hug and really appreciate them.
People compliment me on my sense of humor and smile.

Fred Caswell

Meant as both a play on words but primarily as a compliment to your dear mom, I still prefer to refer to her as "Jewels". Wish I knew if it was received by ta mere as the sincere compliment intended; if it is not appreciated it will stop if you will let me know.

As an aside, two evenings ago, while joining Nancy and many of her high school classmates celebrate their 50th year reunion with a dinner-dance in a hotel ballroom, yours truly received a few compliments on both the amount of time spent on the dance floor and the ability of Nancy"s 84 year old dance partner, by far the oldest of mostly 68 and69 year old alumni. Most of the music was of the fast beat type where dancers do their special "moves" with spaces between couples. Yes, it was necessary for the old guy to take short breaks or rest his weaker right leg but he was told a few times that he almost never left the dance floor. Happily, no night time heart attack plus both back and right leg complained but still function!

As a youth Fred Astaire was my model and I learned to be a smooth slower dancer but Nancy and I blend best with the modern fast beats! Also, slow dancing now brings a higher need to concentrate on avoiding a fall due to a little balance problem on my part.

Kristi, you, your mom, Jean-Marc, and your "kids" sont tres braux! Peace

Faye Stampe

I think your mom is lovely. I hope you will see her again soon. I lost my mom 4 years ago, and I would love to have her here. So embrace your life.

I love your "word of the day" email--it is a thrill to receive them. I am taking French classes and your words are wonderful. Thanks for your words and photos. Be well

Meg Tipper

Your post today reminded me of a time I was clothes shopping (which I always do alone because I hate it so much) and I overheard a little girl whisper to her mother as they walked past me, "That lady is so pretty." I turned around to see who she was talking about, and there was no one else there. I had never thought of myself as in any way remarkably pretty, and I think that was the nicest compliment about my appearance I ever received because it was so pure. Merci pour votre bonne histoire.


One of the best compliments about me was from a former elementary school student who said this to my sister who is also a music teacher after I retired from the school...
"Mrs. Hersh was the best music teacher because she doesn't just teach music she teaches us about life!"
I'm like your Mom, Kristin. I give compliments when ever I can because I know they will lift anyone's spirit. I just learned a song by Red Grammer,(children's recording artist) called "I Think You're Wonderful"
You can go to Amazon mp3 downloads to hear it and here are the lyrics so apropos to your post:
I think you’re wonderful.
When somebody says that to me; I feel wonderful, as wonderful can be.
It makes me want to say, the same thing to somebody new.
And by the way I’ve been meaning to say; I think you’re wonderful too.

When we practice this phrase in the most honest way,
Find something special in someone each day,
We’ll lift up the world one heart at a time,
It all starts by saying this one simple line…



I guess it takes one to know one, since your mom is stunning!

Jeanne Robinson

So happy you asked about the best compliment you have ever received, because I just heard it today. After returning from a week-long cruise to Alaska in the company of several gospel music groups and Gov. Mike Huckabee, the checker at my local grocery store told me, "I can see Jesus in you." I've been floating ever since.

Karen from Phoenix, AZ

Angela so sorry for your loss.


Bonjour Kristin: Comme le temps passe vite, ta mère est déjà partie. It seems like just the other day that she arrived, amidst the sound of the rossignols.
Mais tu ne nous as pas parlé de la réaction de la pharmacienne après avoir entendu votre compliment.
When I first came stateside for college from Asia, I would say "no, that's not true" whenever somebody complimented me. It was cultural. It took a German student to explain to me that I was "fishing for compliments" if I kept saying No. He knew I was not, so he told me the best way was to say "Thank you". Now, influenced by Americans, I'm like...Jules, complimenting freely, even to strangers standing in line near me :-) But I tell the truth and not just flatteries.


J'ai oublié de dire que Kristin, tu es canon! Ce n'est pas une flatterie ici :-)


"After all, the French do not dish out compliments as the folks back home do--at least not to strangers." Wait what????

With all due respect... have you ever been to Paris (or Marseille, from what I've heard from female friends)? You can't walk down the block or take a ride in the metro without having a man approach and tell you that franchement you're 'charmante' and try to get your number. :P

I only exaggerate slightly... ;)


Hello Jules,

I hope you had a nice journey back home!

Jennifer in OR

Candid, honest compliments are miraculous in effect! But flattery, that's another thing. Maybe the French are concerned about which is which?

Proverbs speaks on flattery--"A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet." and "a flattering mouth works ruin." Words spoken to gain advantage for yourself through a veiled compliment are deadly. BUT, truly finding the good in others and sharing it? That is so Christ-like.

Marianne Rankin

I occasionally give compliments, as the occasion arises. And I have written little notes here and there to people, such as bus drivers, who are exceptionally courteous and friendly, going beyond the bounds of their jobs.

I think it's important to let people know they are appreciated. Years ago, at the request of a scientist, I tracked down some information for him, and considered it all in a day's work at the scientific society where I was a staffer. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when he wrote back to thank me; I was truly amazed that this busy man would do such a thing. Who was he? Arthur C. Upton, later head of the National Cancer Institute. No kind word is ever wasted.


I like to compliment people. Many times in a store I will tell a total stranger that I like their coat, shirt, dress, whatever. Or that they look really good in that color. These are from the heart. Sometimes we get into a conversation about the piece of clothing and them.

I have complimented strangers in church for their lovely singing - I can't carry a tune or sing.

When you compliment a stranger, it can really make their day. I have had strangers say "I like your jacket" and I'd thank them and then I'd proceed to tell them where I got it.

I'm glad that you had a good time with your mom. It passed so quickly.

Marianne Rankin

Kathleen, it's great that you compliment people on their singing. As a singer and choir member for years, it's good to know that listeners noticed their music and that it made a difference.

Lisa A., CA

I think my most memorable compliment was when a boy came up to me when I was 17 and told me he liked me teeth. I had been smiling...and he said he liked my teeth, it was so strange...but nice at the same time.

It's funny the things one remembers...

Betty Frost

I think your mother is beautiful and very special. One of the photos I have on my screensaver is one that you took of Jules some years ago. She is walking away and has on a beautiful hat. I love texture and the photo has it all.

Thanks for sharing your beautiful mother with all of us.



My most memorable compliment?... When I was visiting Paris for the first time, I was walking alone one morning on the crowded Champs Elysée, and a Frenchman bumped lightly into me as he passed and said "Bonjour". Something about the way he said it let me know that it was intentional and meant to be a compliment. Unforgettable!

Jacqueline Gill

This post is a bit late in the week; I have been without my computer for several days. But I had to drop by and say how much I loved each word-for-this-week. My Antonia is one of my favorites, and I always had several students who fell in love with it after I introduced them to Cather. Her descriptions of people are also breathtaking and memorable, don't you think? As for compliments, I have always been self conscious and readily identified with your self doubts while on vacation. But if your photos are any way accurate, you, my dear, are a knock out, as are your mom, your children, and your husband. Consider that a sincere compliment. I try to say something nice about each person I talk to daily, as I believe life is short and words are powerful. Here's another compliment for you: in my mind I have met you and your brood and we live just across the street from each other. How's that for a compliment to you and your writing?


Dear Kristin,

Another beautiful post. I'm sorry that Jules had to leave all of you. I hope you can see each other again soon. Thanks for sharing little bits of her visit with you. You're truly lucky to have such a kind, spunky mom. As others have said, I agree that you're both totally canon!

To Angela and Faye-My sympathies to both of you regarding your moms. I lost my mom almost 15 years ago and I still long to have her here with me. Our fond memories will keep us all going. And I believe our loved ones are never very far away even after they're "gone". Blessings to both of you.

Ronni Lester Ebbers

Yes, when I feel a compliment coming on, I do blurt it out. What a rush when the recipient grins in pleasure.

Always so delightful when it's spontaneous, and I'm almost as surprised as the "stranger" that it popped out of my mouth.


Dave Smith

Votre maman est chaud


I especially notice small children when I'm out & about. And often have told parents how beautiful they are.Parents need (& love) to be encouraged in their endeavours. ALL children are beautiful. My personal favorite compliment was from a boss's wife when I first visited their house. She told my boss that I made her feel welcome in their own home when she met me at the door.


Merveilleux !

Au Québec, on dirait "c'est un crisse de 💣 pétard, celle-là !"

Enjoy yourselves over there, perhaps a visit to Montréal un beau jour.

Kristin Espinasse

Thanks, Carole! Loved the expression you shared 🧨 and we hope to make it to Montréal soon.

Janet Dickson

I absolutely love this. Please keep up the good work.

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