Dépaysement: What the French Call That Feeling of . . . um . . . Un-country-ness


Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.

I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:


  1. (sentiment dérangeant) disorientation
  2. (sentiment agréable) change of scenery

It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.

Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.

What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.

But the French do.

(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)

In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.

(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)

People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.

(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)

The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.

(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)

More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.

(Michael Holenweger, Michael Karl Jager, and Franz Kernic, eds., Leadership in Extreme Situations, Springer 2017)

And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.

[photo: “Break Fast Languages,” by Enoz, used under a Creative Commons license]


So That’s How You Say It: Find Foreign Words and Names Pronounced Online

2788433360_9dc6cc602aIt all started when I asked one of my sons what he wanted for Christmas. He said a Moleskine journal. (By the way, this story would be better if I could tell it, rather than write it out.) I’d heard about them before, but come on. Moleskin?!! Do I look like I’m made out of money? I can’t afford a book with a cover made out of mole skins!

I looked it up on Amazon anyway, and I saw that it wasn’t as expensive as I’d expected, nor was it spelled the way I’d thought. Come to find out, it’s not mole skin, the fur. It’s Moleskine, the Italian company in Milan.

So, what’s the right way to say Moleskine? “The answer,” say the folks at the Moleskine website,”is: there is no predetermined answer.”

Moleskine® is a brand name with undefined national identity. And that’s the way we like it. As a literary name, it was used by British travel writer Bruce Chatwin in his book “The Songlines”, referred to the little black notebooks he usually bought from a stationery store in Paris.

Everyone should feel free to pronounce it as he/she prefers. Enjoy.

Well, that’s settled. (Or not.)

But what about all those other foreign words and names that escape obvious pronunciation? You can’t always just look them up. And even if you find them, how can you hope to decipher all the hieroglyphics of phonetic spelling? What do they really sound like? If only we could hear someone say them.

Fear not. There is help—and it’s only a couple clicks away.

Here, for your listening and learning pleasure, are 8 sites that will have you sounding like a native in no time—or at least you’ll sound like an intelligent non-native to your friends.

As the Moleskine people say, “Enjoy.”


“The largest pronunciation guide in the world.” Boasts over 2 million pronunciations in more than 300 languages. Gives you the ability to add words, pronunciations, and ratings. From their blog, “Pronuncionary,” here are the top pronunciations of 2013:
1. denigrated
2. Chag Sameach
3. 把手拿回
4. djävligt
5. Karadayı
6. مهذبة
7. præstekonen
8. ムーン香奈
9. Geschke
10. Guillaume

Pronounce Names

Started by Pinky Thakkar, a San Jose State graduate student from Mumbai. Includes people and place names. You can submit names for inclusion. Has its own YouTube channel, as well.

The Name Engine

Good for names of celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and the like. Created for radio and TV professionals. Gives “Americanized” version of foreign names.

Hear Names

Surnames and given names from over 50 languages. Started by Elizabeth Bojang, an American who served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, to “help executives and customer service representatives compete in the global marketplace.”

Pronounce It Right

Celebrity names and commonly used foreign words, with pronunciations that are “irreproachable replicas as produced by non-native speakers.” Run by Italians Patrizia Serra, a well-traveled journalist, and Laura Mazzoni, a translator and editor of linguistic dictionaries.


Voice of America’s guide to pronouncing names and places in the news. “The first of its kind on the Internet.”

Audio Eloquence

Maintained by Judith West and Heather Henderson to provide resources for their colleagues in audiobook narration. An index of links to a slew of sites on pronouncing words in multiple languages, people and place names, food names, biblical names, and more.

World Food Pronunciations—Foreign Cuisine Language Dictionary

A collection of sites from About.com. Includes entries for German, Italian, Japanese, and French cuisine.

[photo: “Mouthing Off,” by Caitlin Regan, used under a Creative Commons license]