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The German masculine noun Mensch means a human being, as opposed to Mann or Frau (man or woman). Thus "ein guter Mensch" means a good human being.

In German, this same noun has an additional vocative sense, as a familiar form of address. This occurs in Alfred Döblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz". I think either Eugene Jolas or Michael Hofmann renders it as "kid" when Franz Biberkopf calls one of his girlfriends "Mensch." And when a woman speaks to a woman (when Eva speaks to Sonja), the translators sometimes render it as "girl" and sometimes with Sonja's name:

Döblin p 303: Du bist doch schwul, Mensch.

Jolas p 379: Sure, you're queer, Sonia.

Hoffman p 263: You're queer, girl.

In ancient Greek, we have something similar. The noun ἄνθρωπος (hence "anthropology") means a human being as opposed to ἀνήρ man and γυνή woman. For instance, Matthew 12.36 is translated in the King James as "... every idle word that men shall speak ..." whereas the word is ἄνθρωπος, meaning human beings.

In English, via Yiddish, Mensch means (per online Oxford English Dictionary):

In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable.

A famous instance of this usage occurs in Billy Wilder's film "The Apartment."

In contemporary French, what words capture these senses of "Mensch"?

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  • This question is not well-suited for this site for two reasons. It's too broad: it covers three very different sets of meanings, which just happen to have a common spelling in German. You haven't said which references you've consulted and in what way they are not satisfactory. Beware that none of the three answers posted at this time are good: they're all missing common words or explaining nuances poorly. Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 17:52
  • From times to times you can see, Homme, with a capital letter. When that's the case it means human an not man. In regards with the current idea to have French more inclusive towards gender, though, this way of expressing it is highly questionable. Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 9:22

3 Answers 3

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There is a couple of ways to name a human being in French a gender neutral way like une personne or un être humain but you can't use them to address someone.

Toi or vous might be used in a dialogue.

"Ein guter Mensch" might translate to une bonne personne or quelqu'un de bien. They work whatever the gender of the person.

The Jewish usage also looks like honnête homme which obviously isn't gender neutral but une personne intègre and both of the expressions suggested above could be used.

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As a literary example, where word Mensch in its American/Yiddish sense could be appropriate, one could give The Story of a Real Man, translated in French as Histoire d'un homme veritable, and in German Die Geschichte vom wahren Menschen. I think Real man / homme veritable / wahren Menschen here is used in the meaning closest to what is meant by Mensch in American English, although perhaps in less colloquial register (or perhaps simply because it is a literal translation from the Russian original.)

I might need some help from French speakers for my other example: in film The Counterfeiters / Les Faussaires / Die Fälscher a Nazi guard gives the following epitaph to one of the prisoners: "Er war ein Jude, aber er war auch ein Mensch." ("He was a Jew, but he was a real man.") Unfortunately, I have never seen this film in French, and it seems not sufficiently well-known to pull out quotes from the internet. Perhaps, someone who has seen it in French could advise me on how Mensch was rendered in this context.

Remark: My quote from counterfeiters might be unexact. According to this link, the English version is "A Jew... but he died like a man!"

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There does not exist in French an equivalent term such as "man" in English or "Mensch" in German as used as appositive terms in the singular. Some terms have somewhat similar connotations but they are not used often and tend to be used in a haughty manner that borders on the vulgar. They will not translate every time the two terms « man » and « Menschn ».

  • collègue (can be haughty)
  • copain (popular, can be haughty or jocular)
  • camarade
  • les gars (popular, used most often, free of connotations but for groups of young or middle age men only)
  • les mecs (popular, used most often, free of connotations but for groups of young or middle age men only, considered vulgar by some people although much used nowadays)

A few examples of use, but translated in English only (not proficient in German)

  • Dis copain tu peux pas regarder où tu marches ? (not polite)
    Man! Can't you watch where you tread?

  • Allez les gars, on y va !
    Let's go men ! (fairly good rendering in this case)

  • Allez les mec, on y va !
    Let's go men ! (fairly good rendering in this case, considered vulgar by some people, although much used nowadays)


There are several additional restrictions on the use of these terms. Most importantly, « copain », « les gars » ou les « mecs » can't be used for women. (see user jlliagre's comment).

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    Copain, les gars ou les mecs ne peuvent pas être utilisés quand on s'adresse à une ou plusieurs femmes.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 9:49
  • I tried to raise the score on this but when I clicked the up-arrow the score went down. Just because it is a digression into males does not mean it is not helpful. I can imagine one of my Classics professors at the University of Washington in the 1980s giving me this kind of information. Sometimes one learns by digressions. I miss those professors. Commented Jul 13 at 14:34

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