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I met an expression en vouloir in two sentences coming from Harry Potter and Le Petit Prince:

Il ne pouvait pas lui en vouloir.

Il ne faut pas leur en vouloir.

When I found out that it means to blame someone, the use of the verb vouloir felt very strange and I wonder how this expression came to be. Why a verb meaning to want creates an expression like that?

Is there any approximated, or common sense translation of this expression?

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First, en vouloir has not only the meaning to blame someone :

  • Avoir contre quelqu’un un sentiment de malveillance. (To have against someone the will to harm)
  • Attaquer, tenter de nuire à quelqu’un. (To want to attack or to be detrimental to)
  • Avoir une rancune vis-à-vis de quelqu’un. (To have hard feelings or grudge)
  • Avoir quelque prétention sur une personne, sur une chose, en avoir quelque désir. (To desire)
  • Avoir du regret, du repentir. (To regret)

And it can also means

Être très déterminé, très motivé. (To be motivated, determinated)


To help you to understand, you have to place yourself in situation:
Something happened, probably caused by someone and you :

  • want revenge / to ask for compensation (3 firsts meanings);
  • want to have / get it back (to desire);
  • want to have done differently (to regret).

→ You want to have something from this person. (excuses, goods, feelings)

→ You are refusing the current situation and want reality to change.

You can look at the reverse translation to have more traductions.

  • Thanks, there's one thing that I want to ask you: does en vouloir have the following meanings mixed together all at once, or does en vouloir mean slightly different things in different contexts? Will I be able to differentiate between the 5 meanings that you gave from the context of a sentence? – camillejr Nov 2 '16 at 12:38
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    @Camille No, there is one meaning by context. You could be able to differentiate them by the context, but it may be hard. Look at examples in the first link I give, you will see that the 3 first meanings may be hard to differentiate because they are all holding the be offended - ask compensation situation, with different degrees of anger. – Yohann V. Nov 2 '16 at 12:58
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I think the literal translation might sound a touch unidiomatic, but not terribly strange.

He could not want anything against him.

But in English, I would say the idiomatic expression that most closely approximates this usage is hold instead of want.

He could not hold anything against him.

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