I’m near Bordeaux spending the weekend with my family, and I spotted this sign on a local school. I love the lettering, the colour, and the fact that it states that the school is “laïque”. I wondered how I would translate this very French word into English; the first one that came to mind was “secular”, but I knew this wasn’t quite right. So straight after coming back (and eating my 11am chocolatine), I got down to work.
Laic (adj.)
1560s, from Late Latin laicus, from Greek laikos “of or belonging to the people,” from laos “people” as opposed to klerikos (clerc), which designate religious institutions. Incidentally, the English word “lay” (uneducated; non-clerical) has the same origin.
So laïcité is a legal or institutional system based on the separation of churches and State and is all about the social role and the place of religion within institutions and civil society. In France, this system was put in place by the 1905 law, which sets out that the State does not recognise, remunerate or subsidise any religion, and guarantees complete freedom of conscience.
The field of secularisation is wider: whilst it also concerns itself with replacing religious laws with civil laws, it also works within the private sphere, not just on the level of the State, with the aim of emancipating consciences and human society from religious rule.
Hence the problem with translating école laïque: it refers to a precise institutional system rooted in French history, and a footnote would be handy to explain its meaning. If I had to provide a translation on the hoof, while interpreting for example, I think I’d say “non-denominational state school”. Any better ideas?

By |2016-10-18T15:48:28+00:00October 5th, 2013|Culture, Words|9 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. Gaëlle Gagné October 7, 2013 at 9:46 am - Reply

    Bonjour Céline,
    Excellent post and very good point… It can be difficult for a native English speaker born in the United States, the UK or Canada to understand how much the separation of Church and State matters in our country.
    When I was living in Canada, I often heard people referring to non-confessional schools as non-religious (, but I think that the term is more appropriate for an inter-religious form of education. I therefore prefer your proposed translation.

  2. céline October 7, 2013 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Thanks Gaëlle, it’s so important that in another village, I even saw “Liberté, égalité, fraternité, laïcité” on the school wall. What do you mean by “inter-religious”?

  3. Gaëlle Gagné October 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Inter-religious is the same as inter-faith, meaning involving two or more religious movements. Some institutions offer religious education so they are considered as confessional schools, without focusing on one specific faith (denomination).

  4. EP October 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    I was thinking of something like “nonclerical municipal school” but I think I like “non-denominational state school” better.

  5. Natalie November 27, 2013 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    I love how you got to work translating that word. As a child I was fascinated by the evolution of language. I took Latin as an undergraduate and right now living in a francophone place and learning French, I love it how often I come across a word in French that I can see evolved from a word that I had learned in my Latin class years ago, it’s all very fascinating.

  6. Douglas Carnall February 24, 2014 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Hi Céline,
    Just caught up with this post. I suppose my first response would be: “For whom do you wish to translate this term, and where will it appear?” IMHO, all of the choices discussed so far seem to favour technical precision over colloquial usage. In SE England, a similar cultural distinction to that represented by ‘école laïque’ vs ‘école privée catholique’ might be represented by ‘state primary school’ vs ‘CofE primary school’, for example.
    I agree it’s a tricky one though!

  7. David Vaughn March 3, 2014 at 6:39 am - Reply

    According to Oxford American: Non-denominational “open or acceptable to people of any Christian denomination. non-denominational religious instruction.”
    Personally, I would be a little more open in the definition, including Jews or Muslims, for example, but for me the term implies that their is a religious element, perhaps prayer to a non-specific “God”.
    Note that Collins-Robert suggests:
    l’enseignement ou l’école laïque
    [en général] secular education
    [en France] state education
    For me, I see no better term than “secular” to translate the word in most circumstances.

  8. David Vaughn March 3, 2014 at 7:15 am - Reply

    Note also that in many circumstances, “lay” implies that the person described is involved in a religious act or context. Lay and secular are usually not synonyms in English. This is in contrast with the ordinary usage of “laïque” today (and séculier), a usage which is modern in French.
    Oxford again:
    lay 2 |leɪ|
    adjective [ attrib. ]
    1) not ordained into or belonging to the clergy: a lay preacher.
    ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French lai, via late Latin from Greek laïkos, from laos ‘people’.
    But by extension the word is occasionally used in English “figuratively”:
    Oxford again:
    2) not having professional qualifications or expert knowledge, especially in law or medicine: a lay member of the Health Authority.
    Returning to “non-denominational, the term implies a religious context and usually at least a belief in God. It is often found in contexts where people say things like, “we all pray to the same God, we just have different names for Him”. This however excludes people who are atheist or agnostic, or religious people who do not accept the idea that the identity of God is non-specific and elastic.

  9. céline March 7, 2014 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the clarification of “non-denominational”, which I clearly didn’t understand properly. Tricky indeed !

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