To express the idea of someone being a "smart alec", you say "petit malin" or "gros malin" in a pejorative sense.

I've never given this much thought before and have always used the two as more-or-less interchangeable synonyms, but I wonder if "petit malin" is considered to be a diminutive form here and somewhat less worse than "gros malin"?

  • You know, sooner or later someone may as well point out to you that technically "I wonder" is not correct for the way you mean it. You're looking for "I'm wondering," which is used when posing a question to someone. When you say "I wonder," it implies a rhetorical nature to the question, like remarking "I wonder who the next President will be." It expresses curiosity but implies there is no expectation of an answer. Jun 5, 2018 at 8:38

1 Answer 1


This is the distinction I would make (caveat: I am Belgian, I would not be surprised there would be other opinions in other French-speaking areas, esp. in Québec):

Un petit malin is someone smart, who uses their skills for finding subtle, practical solutions to tricky issues (and often with some mischief)


Un petit malin a réussi à entrer par derrière.

C'est un petit malin, il a trouvé comment payer moins cher.

Un gros malin is actually not very smart, even if they think they are; gros "negates" the quality of malin. Typically, someone who does more harm than good when trying to play it smart.


Ce gros malin a réussi à tomber en panne d'essence.

Mais tu te trompes complètement, gros malin !

So neither of the two phrases are really used the sense of "know-all"; you may want to use then eg monsieur/madame je-sais-tout (a person that knows it all and likes to show it).

  • On another note: I also say something like: "Quelqu'un va regretter d'avoir fait le malin." without a qualifying adjective. I wonder if "faire le malin" in this specific instance is close in meaning to "gros malin"? May 27, 2018 at 14:29
  • Definitely! Faire le malin means to show off while doing something blatantly stupid, or very likely to have negative consequences. Remember this humorous proverb: qui fait le malin tombe dans le ravin.
    – Greg
    May 27, 2018 at 14:34
  • In English, "smartass" is less polite than "smart alec". What's your take on the degree of politeness indicated by "petit/gros malin"? Are they closer to "smartass"? May 27, 2018 at 14:46
  • 2
    I would not rate "petit/gros malin" as impolite: it can be perceived as a mild criticism for "petit malin" (because it often implies some degree of mischief, and a petit malin often acts in the hidden), and "gros malin" is clearly negative, but not offensive (a bit like "gros bêta").
    – Greg
    May 27, 2018 at 14:54
  • Je suis Français et je fais la même distinction. May 28, 2018 at 7:30

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