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In French, how does one translate the word "sharp" in a phrase like "we'll begin at 7:00 pm sharp". An online dictionary gives "pile", as in "à sept heures pile", but this doesn't sound right to me. Is "pile" a legit translation?

Also, if it's different, how would the phrase be said in Canadian French?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Pile" is indeed legit in this context. As an adverb, pile means "precise" or "exact". So "à sept heures pile" or "à dix-neuf heures pile" means "at exactly 7 o'clock".

Alternatively, one can use "sonnant" as an adjective to convey the same meaning. Coming from the verb "sonner", it refers to clocks chiming at the hour. Therefore you can also say "à sept heures sonnantes" or "à dix-neuf heures sonnantes".

Those two would be understood in Canadian French, but "pile" is more widely used.

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In France, X heures tapantes is more common than X heures sonnantes. I just learned that this is a recent phenomenon. –  Gilles Oct 1 '13 at 20:29
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You could also think of "pétantes", even though it is more colloquial but still used a lot when speaking nowadays. –  Ludovic C. Oct 1 '13 at 20:29
    
I would also suggest “sept heures précises”, with a slight doubt with how to make “précises“ agree. –  Édouard Oct 1 '13 at 21:57
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The usual translation in French is indeed “à sept heures pile”, at least in France. Kareen confirms that this is also common in Québec.

A traditional way to express this would be “à sept heures sonnantes”, meaning “as the (Church) bell is ringing the seventh hour”. In the early 20th century, other synonymous expressions appeared in writing: “à sept heures tapantes” (which is more common than sonnantes nowadays), “à sept heures pétantes” (colloquial, not normally used in writing).

In “à sept heures pile”, pile is used as an adverb. This relates to the meaning of pile as the tail side of a coin. In the early to mid-20th century, the word pile came to mean brusquely, sharply; as far as I can tell, this evokes a coin that lands sharply (and noisily) on a table and stops moving. For example “s'arrêter pile” means to stop abrubtly (and this gave rise to the verb piler with this meaning). Around the same time, and presumably arising from this meaning, pile started to be used with time, to mean an exact time : “être pile à l'heure” (to be exactly on time), “sept heures pile” (seven o'clock sharp).

The use of pile as an adverb is mostly colloquial, but after a time it is well received in writing.

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