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Hocher la tête: Shaking one’s head or nodding?

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La tête means “head” in French. So far so good. But what’s hocher?

Well, that should be easy enough for you to find out. All you have to do is open your favorite French dictionary and take a quick look:

You stare at the dictionary.

The dictionary stares back at you.

Okay, what’s going on?

The French word hocher as a contronym

First of all, let’s acknowledge the fact that this is not a super logical nor a super practical thing in a language, and it seems more like a bug than a feature. However, we should also remind ourselves that this happens regularly, albeit not all the time, with many languages.

So much so that this phenomenon has a name – multiple names, in fact. These pairs are commonly called contronyms, auto-antonyms or Janus words. (Janus is a Roman god, frequently depicted as having two or three faces. That’s because he embodied, among other things, transitions and the passing of time. Fitting, right?)

These are words that can mean one thing in one context and the exact opposite thing in a different context.

How do contronyms come into being? Sometimes the word used to exist in two different forms, which later morphed into one: in this case, two different etymologies came together in the same spelling and sound.

In other cases, the same word form acquires multiple meanings as time passes, becoming a homonym. But a contronym is not your average homonym, it’s a special kind that picks up diametrically opposing meanings.

One of the most obvious examples you can think of is the English word “rent”, which can mean “to allow use for payment” or “to pay to be allowed use”. Which end of the deal are you on? Are you a property owner or a property renter? It matters a lot, but you may use the same word to describe your situation.

Hocher la tête: nodding or shaking your head

Now that we’ve put a label on this phenomenon, we can take a deep breath and go back to the French expression hocher la tête. (Note that sometimes it’s formulated as hocher de la tête, which means the same thing.)

If you come across this expression (and you absolutely will sooner or later), take a good look at your text. Not only at the sentence containing hocher, but a whole chunk of text, like a paragraph.

That’s because hocher basically means “to move your head” – it just doesn’t specify whether it’s a horizontal movement (a shake) or a vertical one (nodding).

What does that mean? It means you’ll need to infer meaning from the surrounding information. Context will tell you whether that specific person is in the process of agreeing to/ approving of something, or on the contrary, showing dissent.

If the context doesn’t tell you that, then chances are the writer (or speaker) made a mistake by not being clear or elaborate enough.

An alternative explanation would be that he or she decided to leave you in the dark, but this seems a lot less likely to me. The only person I can think of who’d do that deliberately is an author writing detective fiction, using ambiguous phrasing to create suspense at the end of a chapter. As I said – not likely to happen.

That’s it. Tricky expressions have always existed, and hocher la tête is just another example of that. A little bit of extra attention, and you’ll be able to tell which meaning was intended for your specific sentence.

Note: hocher starts with what’s called an aspirated h, which is quite common in French. Knowing which words start with an aspirated h is important, because it has a direct impact on pronunciation. Don’t miss out on Frenchanted’s article on the aspirated h!

And if you’re looking for a neat list of words starting with an spirated h for all levels of proficiency, check out ours here.

But wait! Can’t you specifically say “to nod” or “to shake one’s head” in French?

You can. Now that we’ve covered hocher, we are here to tell you that you can avoid this ambiguity while speaking French. While hocher la tête is a common expression, you can easily circumvent using it yourself.

Secouer la tête…

…or “to shake one’s head”.

J’ai vu Joanne secouer la tête. = I saw Joanne shake her head.

secouer la tête en signe de désapprobation (f) / désaccord (m) = to shake one’s head as a sign of disapproval/ disagreement

Note: secouer la tête can mean shaking your head for any other reason, too, like getting water out of your ear after swimming.

Faire un signe de tête négatif

… meaning the same thing – shaking your head.

Faire un signe de tête affirmatif/ approbateur

… meaning “to nod as a sign of approval/ agreement”.

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