Bon viveur

Read in yesterday’s Guardian:

Ned Sherrin, wit, impresario, bon viveur and Radio 4 Stalwart, dies at 76.

The Compact Oxford English dictionary tells us that bon viveur is another term for bon vivant.

— ORIGIN pseudo-French, from French bon ‘good’ and viveur ‘a living person’

This isn’t quite right. In French, a viveur is someone who lives for pleasure and leads a life of debauchery; it has negative connotations and I’ve never seen it attached to bon. A bon vivant (vivant being the exact word for "a living person") is someone who enjoys life and its pleasures, particularly food and drink, which was apparently Ned Sherrin’s case, as I then heard later on Radio 4, in a piece where bon viveur was also used to describe him. I don’t think these two expressions can be used as if they were interchangeable, because in French they describe two very different people. After all, it would be unfair to suggest that someone who simply likes the odd tipple in good company is in fact the kind of person who rarely emerges before three in the afternoon and is at their happiest lying face down in the gutter having just drunk the entire contents of the local supermarket’s alcohol aisle.
Any thoughts?

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:39+00:00 October 3rd, 2007|Idioms|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Tony October 3, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Yes, the English often get it wrong. Fanny Craddock’s husband use to write under the name of Bon Viveur; he meant Bon Vivant but actually he was a noted lush (as was Fanny) so he got it right by mistake.

  2. Xavier Kreiss October 4, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    I agree. Bon viveur is just one of quite a few French expressions and words used erroneously, perhaps because using them sounds clever.
    They are also frequently misspelt and mispronounced: “restauranteur” always sets my teeth on edge.
    However, the same happens in reverse in France.

  3. Bela October 8, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Drat, Xavier, you got there before me: I was going to mention ‘restauranteur’ too. The horror!

  4. Laurent October 17, 2007 at 8:03 am

    The one that always gave me the creeps is “double entendre”, frequently used by otherwise well educated Americans.

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