August 1, 2011


France is divided up into regions, which are divided into departements. I live in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and in the departement of Nord. The other departement in our region is Pas-de-Calais. Unlike some regions that have creative names, ours is just our two departements hyphenated together.

The purple is the departement of Pas-de-Calais and the green is the departement of Nord.

One of the first words one learns when studying the French language is the word “pas.” It means not.

Je ne suis PAS française = I am NOT French.

I have always thought that the departement “PAS de Calais” was called so because it was NOT from Calais, a coastal town in the department. In my head there was the North, and then there was everything that was NOT considered to be Calais. I also figured that this was a historic naming, as Calais is no longer as important as other cities.

I was wondering what departement Dunkerque was in, and looked it up on google maps. I then made an astonishing discovery that I had to share with FBF.

FBF, Dunkerque est dans le Nord, mais tu sais ce qu’il y a de bizarre? Calais est juste à côté mais il est DANS le Pas-de-Calais” (FBF, Dunkirk is in the Nord, but do you know what’s weird? Calais is right next to it, but it’s in the Pas-de-Calais).

Bah oui. C’est normale. C’est le Pas-de-Calais” (Well yeah. That’s normal. It’s the Pas-de-Calais).

"Oui mais si c’est le Pas-de-Calais, il n’est pas sensé d’être pas à Calais?” (Yes, but if it’s the Pas-de-Calais, isn’t it supposed to be NOT Calais?)

This is when I learned that the word pas has two meanings. FBF explained while laughing at me, “Ah, en fait ce n’est pas PAS comme not. C’est pas comme quand on marche” (Ah, actually it’s not pas as in not. It’s pas as in when you walk).

Pas not only means not, but it also means steps or footsteps. So the departement of Pas-de-Calais actually means the steps taken around Calais. Hence why Calais is actually included in the departement’s name.


EDIT: One of my Spanish friends has informed me (and I confirmed with wikipedia) that Pas-de-Calais is translated as the Straight of Dover.

But like my dad says, never let the facts interfere with a good story.


  1. My in-laws live in the Pas-de-Calais, and they told me the name came from yet another meaning of "pas", ie "détroit" or a narrow passage, as in it's the narrow passage between England and France (I think the British call it the Straights of Dover).

  2. I love what your dad says!!! That made this post fabulous!!!

  3. It is always good to be quoted. It shows that it takes a long time to get to know another country - they can be subtle. Dad

  4. I like the way your dad thinks! This is a great story and typical of the way the French look at things.

  5. Same story as Ksam. "Pas" has at least 3 meanings in French. Why using synonyms when we can confuse foreigners with just one word, huh? :-) Oh and I love your dad's saying!

  6. In one of my French classes this past semester we had to do a presentation on the regions and one of my classmates chose Nord-Pas-de-Calais. She also thought it was called that because it's NOT from Calais.

    Great post, I especially enjoyed your dad's saying.

  7. Ksam: Just goes to show you that I shouldn't take FBF's word on anything he claims is French from here on out ;)

    Jen: Thanks! My dad has some good sayings, for sure :)

    Mike: You're welcome :) Glad to share your genius with the internet, haha. And yes, it takes a long time to get to know the intricacies of language and culture.

    Kris: Me too! I love my dad's sayings. And thanks for appreciating the story, even if it wasn't 100% accurate, haha.

    Emilie: I feel like some French people should write wordreference! I looked up all the meanings of pas before I posted, and straight as in narrow passage wasn't one of them! But yeah there are more meanings than just the one. Although we've got plenty of English words that have multiple meanings as well.

    Laura: I'm happy to learn I'm not the only one who made the mistake! At least I wasn't being graded on mine, haha.

  8. An author friend of mine once said "When telling a story, effect trumps truth."

    Also, I know I only taught myself some French, but I've never understood why "Je ne suis" isn't sufficient enough to say "I am not." If "Je suis" means "I am", why do you have to say "Je ne suis pas..." to say "I am not." What am I missing?

  9. Joshua: Try "Je suis pas". Not suitable for writing but colloquial. Sometimes, being informal/familiar makes more sense grammatically speaking. ;-)

  10. Admittedly, I have been reading this blog for quite some time and haven't had the guts to comment. Definitely one of my favorite French-related blogs; the Nord-Pas-de-Calais is my favorite region.
    I had a teacher from Lille, and she emphasized what you said about the "pas" not meaning "not".
    On the other hand, she was just glad to finally get across that she wasn't from Paris. Her largest pet peeve was the people who believed Paris was the only city in France...

  11. Your dad has the BEST sayings!!!

  12. BeauCoeur: Why thank you! I'm glad you finally got up the courage to comment :)
    My parents are always dealing with the Paris-is-the-only-city-in-France mentally. When they tell people what I do they always ask, "is she in Paris?" and then they have to explain where I live. But even after that they'll get "So how's Laura doing in Paris?"

    Marianne: I know!


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