How do you say “oil” in French?


Julia and I are now 1300 miles into our trip in the Canadian Atlantic provinces, and my car needs an oil change.

When you are towing your little home behind you over hill and dale, you become very attentive to its health and well-being.

By now I know my Dodge Durango well. I know its little quirks and hiccups. I baby its transmission. I make sure its fluids are all topped off. I check its tire pressure. I give it lots of TLC and 10W-30.

My Durango has never let me down. (Well, except for that one time, but that was because the coolant cap wasn’t on tight.) My truck is a tank. A gas-guzzling behemoth that muscles up steep grades and soldiers on through rain and snow and dark of night. (Actually, I rarely drive at night, but I’m sure the Durango would do just fine.)

So, after cooling its heels all winter while I was in New York and then towing my little home across the Canadian bush to le fin de terre at Forillon National Park, its vital fluids needed refreshing. There was also that annoying rattle in the rear end that I was betting was the heat shield, or the exhaust pipe, or…

The town of Gaspé was just over the bridge and around the bay from the national park. Someone had also mentioned a coffeehouse that I must try if I was ever in the area.

So, on a cloudy Saturday, Julia and I drove into town.

Now, you cannot waltz into a town in the heart of Quebec and ask if the mechanic would be so kind as to change the oil in your car and to check that annoying rattle in the rear end. You will first spend some time dredging the swampy muck of long-forgotten memory to recall words such as “oil,” “change,” and “are you able.”

Thus equipped, you will walk into the first little service station in town and mumble something about un changement de huile, and you will drop any attempt to mention the annoying rattle.

The very young attendant will look at you with incomprehension and then he will spit out some rapid-fire French. You might catch a couple of words as they fly by, and you might piece together that he can’t change your oil because he is alone in the shop and has to pump the gas. You leave in a hurry before any more French is hurled at you that will leave you floundering in the linguistic dust.

You also realize that something is peculiar with the way you’re pronouncing “oil.” Way back in university you learned some genteel Parisian French that has been decaying in your brain for the past 35 years. You have recalled the word for oil (huile), and you pronounce it “hueeye.” But here, it sounds more like “wheel.”

None of this builds your confidence for the next encounter. The kid in the garage down the street knows a little English, but he’s as embarrassed as you are of your French. He’s also flustered by the presence of the pretty American girl. Julia tends to have this effect on young men.

Nonetheless, you come to some understanding of what you want that may or may not be mutual. Then, he communicates it to the mechanic who will actually do the work, but who speaks no English.

This man has oil under his fingernails and looks like he knows what he’s doing. That’s comforting. You again try your changement de huile and throw in something about les liquides.

So far so good.

J’ai mon propre huile. You have brought your own special brand of oil,which you bought before entering Canada, thank God.


It will be $27 even WITH your own oil.You like the guy, and everything looks bona fide, but that’s a lot of money for an oil change. You decide to check around.

This is a mistake. You learn that most garages are closed on Saturday, and that you’ve been quoted the going rate. After an hour of ridiculous wheel-spinning, you drag your tail back to the garage.

But now they’re very busy, and you might have to come back in a couple hours. Oh, wait, the older guy can fit you in maintenant. He will check les liquides and le pression de pneus.

You chit-chat with the kid, who tells you that he learned English in secondary school, and although he finds it fairly easy, he’s more comfortable listening than speaking. He keeps glancing at Julia. The older guy pops in to tell you something about six milles. You understand the number, but you have no context for it. Six thousand what?

After some mumbo-jumbo, you understand that the manufacturers of your special synthetic oil recommend that it be changed every six thousand miles instead of three. Do you want that written on the little reminder tag he will stick on your window?

Suddenly, the light comes on, and you get it.

Mais, oui!

Then he’s done, and you are like the parent of a small child. Is everything okay? Les liquides? Le pression?

“Goot. Goot. Goot,” he says with emphatic chopping motions of his hand.

You are so relieved to have this simple errand accomplished that you treat yourself and Julia to a little pastry at the café you had heard about. You watch a street band until it begins to rain, and then you watch the rainbow that follows on its heels.

this guy was also watching the band

Rainbow over Gaspe

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2 Responses to How do you say “oil” in French?

  1. Marvin 10 October, 2012 at 12:58 am #

    I’ve been away too long, time for a shout out, ladies! And in case you missed it this morning, track down this piece; brought me a flood of nostalgia and instantly thoughts of you:

    NPR – morning edition
    Tift Merritt: A Singer With An Outsider’s Heart
    October 09, 2012 … Tift Merritt’s latest album is called Traveling Alone. Parker Fitzgerald/Courtesy of the artist Tift Merritt’s latest album is called Traveling Alone. … By NPR Staff

  2. Ainlay Dixon 29 September, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Sometimes the best days are those when some little bit of necessary something just has to get done and then does get done. And then, of course, you deserve a reward for getting thru the language/cultural barriers!