Understanding Belgium and the Belgian

A brief glossary of Belgian french


This is what the Belgians call a returnable empty bottle – consigne to the French. By bringing back your vidanges to the local supermarket, you can get back around 10 cents per bottle.

Non peut-être!

Now we are really getting down to the subtleties of Belgian speech. Non peut-être (literally ‘no perhaps’) actually means ‘yes’. It’s a little like saying ‘Can you really be silly enough to think I could have said no?’.

In Brussels, peut-être without any non or oui afterwards means ‘no’, un peu (literally ‘a little’) means ‘a lot’ and oui sûrement (literally ‘definitely yes’, with a heavy stress on the sûrement) is another way of saying ‘no’.

OK, we admit that this is a little complicated…but in order to keep track of these shades of meaning it is helpful to remember the definition of the ‘woman of the world’, who has some features in common with Belgian speech habits. If a woman of the world says ‘no’, she means ‘perhaps’; if she says ‘perhaps’, she means ‘yes’; and if she says ‘yes’, she is not a woman of the world...

Pain français (‘French bread’)

This is what the Belgians call a baguette. This Belgian expression (or belgicisme) has led to many a misunderstanding in French bakeries, where Belgian holidaymakers, forgetting themselves and asking for pain français, are informed in offended tones that all the bread is baked on the premises and is 100% French!

Chef, un petit verre, on a soif

This expression (which roughly translates as ‘Let’s have a drink, boss, I’m thirsty!’) is now fully integrated into Belgian speech. Jules Vanobbergen, a commercial artist, record dealer and musician, had a long and successful recording career with ‘easy listening’ songs under the pseudonym of ‘Le Grand Jojo’. Several of his hits entered into the Belgian collective memory: E viva Mexico, written following the magnificent performance of the Belgian national football team (the ‘Red Devils’) at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and above all his track Chef, un petit verre, on a soif, which has become the quintessential cry of any thirsty Belgian calling for his favourite drink!!!


Belgian famous

Coluche’s ‘typical Belgian’

We loved the French comedian Coluche – despite the fact that he was responsible, in some of his most famous comic routines, for the idea that Belgians are daft. Such was his talent that many French people incorporated his imitations of us Belgians into their repertoire. It took us several decades to restore our image. Nowadays, we can holiday safely in France again without passers-by bursting into laughter when they see our cars going past with registration plates bearing the Belgian crown.

Adolphe Sax

Born in Belgium in 1814, he invented the saxophone. At a very young age he acquired such skill on the clarinet that he was barred from entering competitions in Belgium. He took out numerous patents for improvements to the clarinet’s design. His major invention, however, is the saxophone, which he wanted to be ‘an instrument which, by the character of its voice, could resemble the stringed instruments, but which possessed greater strength and intensity’. He went to Paris to present his instruments to Hector Berlioz, and when his invention met with acclaim, settled permanently there, ending his career as private music director to Emperor Napoleon III.

Gérard Depardieu

One of France’s most famous tax exiles (unless he counts as a Russian exile, that is…).

The Belgians are none too fond of these tax exiles: wherever they go, property prices skyrocket and the poor old Belgians can’t afford to buy their own homes any more. In addition, they give the French the idea that Belgium is some kind of tax haven, on a par with the Cayman Islands. And given that Belgium has the second heaviest tax burden in Europe, that really rankles.

Johnny Halliday, Christine Ockrent...

OK, so we’re stirring things up a bit here! It’s something of a Belgian obsession to look for Belgian roots for certain French celebrities. Christine Ockrent is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, Raymond Devos was born in Belgium and moved to France when his family had to leave for tax reasons, Marguerite Yourcenar was born in Brussels, Johnny Halliday’s father was Belgian... (although the Belgians have nothing to boast about on this last point, given that the swine abandoned Johnny and his mother).


The Belgian monarchy

Long live the revolution!

Belgians are definitely a little eccentric. After having their revolution in 1830, they demanded a king (unlike the French, who had a revolution to get rid of one)!

What happened was that once the Dutch occupiers had been driven from our country, the revolutionary assembly decided to make Belgium a constitutional monarchy, and set about looking for a king. Several candidates who were sounded out politely declined the invitation: few at that time were keen to become king of this nation of troublemakers.

The Belgians therefore offered the job to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who might be described in today’s terms as an ‘unemployed monarch’.

The unemployed king

Leopold had married the future Queen of England, but following her sudden death in 1817 he was on the look-out for a new role, a new job and, incidentally, a new wife.

Leopold, who now lacked any official function or indeed any reason for being at the British court, continued to receive a decent stipend from the British government, which, however, was beginning to take the view that such a guest represented a considerable outlay for very little return. He was therefore ‘encouraged’ to leave the United Kingdom.

Leopold first turned down the throne of Greece, which was also vacant. Too far away. He then received the proposal of the Belgians. Like the prudent fellow he was, he accepted the offer on condition that Belgium’s borders and debts were settled. In this way, he became the first in a line of seven kings who would write the history of Belgium.

‘King of the Belgians’, not ‘King of Belgium’

We will now explain why – and this is an important detail – we never refer to the ‘King of Belgium’ in the same way that one talks about the ‘King of France’ or the ‘Queen of England’; rather, we speak of the ‘King of the Belgians’. It really was the Belgian people who appointed Leopold king. He had no divine right and held no land in Belgium that would have made him the natural lord of the Belgians. He was the king chosen by the Belgian people, hence his title of ‘King of the Belgians’.