21 December 2011

Chimneys and fireplaces

For English-speaking Americans, the terminology that describes fireplaces and chimneys in French can get fairly confusing. I won't talk about other regional Englishes, because I'm not sure all Anglophones use the same vocabulary in this area.

In the U.S., the chimney is the conduit through which smoke and gases are allowed to escape from a fireplace, a stove, a boiler, or a furnace. The chimney is "the passage" through which fumes pass, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. It is also the vertical structure (usually in brick) though which the chimney passes, and it's the visible part of the structure that sticks up through the roof of a building.

When I heard that a chimney at our friends' had blown
down in the recent storm,
this is not what I imagined.
However, there is significant damage to the roof.

In French, « une cheminée » is something more. According to the Grand Robert dictionary, it is "a device or structure (un dispositif) composed of a fireplace (un foyer) and a pipe (un tuyau) designed to evacuate the smoke from a fire." That's the first meaning.

More specifically and in everyday language, the cheminée is "the lower part of the device or structure that extends into a room" and in which a fire is lit. In other words, cheminée is the French word for fireplace.

Of course, cheminée in French also means the passage smoke and fumes pass through to the exterior, as well as the structure through which it passes and which is visible on the roof of a house or other building.

The chimney that fell over is one that takes away fumes
from the oil-fired boiler.

So when you want to say something about a chimney (U.S. meaning) or about a fireplace, you used the same word in French. To distinguish between the two, you can use the French word conduit, meaning "flue," because the everyday meaning of cheminée is the fireplace. Passer une soirée autour de la cheminée means to spend the evening sitting in front of the fire(place).

A feu de cheminée is not at all "a chimney fire." A chimney fire is to be avoided at all costs unless you want your house to burn down.

In American English, we also use the word "smokestack" to describe the towers on factories or locomotives that let smoke escape. Those too are cheminées in French. According to the AHD, British English calls those chimneys too.

And then you have to figure out the differences in meaning between foyer in French and "foyer" in English.


  1. I've mostly heard foyer used in the sense of 'function room' here. People don't often use it to mean 'fireplace' - usually everything is a cheminée - which makes talking to the mason who is building your new fireplace and chimney a bit of a challenge. In this conversation we settled on cheminée for the fireplace and surround and conduit for the bits that took the smoke away.

  2. Hi Susan, I agree with you. Foyer can mean the fireplace or the fire, but normally fireplace is cheminée. It can also mean a household in official jargon, as this past week when they said that 600,000 foyers étaient privés d'électricité en France.

    In AmEng, "foyer" means a lobby, vestibule, entry hall, or anteroom. I don't know if that's an Americanism.

  3. For great reading about these details -- including the foyer or the hall, read Bill Bryson's "At Home".
    "foyer" from fire, so around the fire, which is where most people tended to hang out in the days before central heating. So it's the heart of the home. And from there, the household.

  4. I have never heard "foyer" used in the sense of 'function room'. May be it is a "regionalisme". In houses, foyer means fireplace, where wood or coal is burning. But it also means center of something, as in "foyer d'infection", infection seat, or center of the family i.e household, because in the days of no central heating the family congregated around it with their laptops! Lastly, it means focus.

  5. P.S. I was writing my comment when Ellen was posting hers and I didn't see it. That's why I seem to repeat what she said. But her English is so much better than mine. LOL

  6. I understand that foyer is the term generally used in Québec for a fireplace, and cheminée for what we Americans call the chimney.

    What about souche de cheminée? That's what I've taught my students to use to refer to what we Americans call the chimney... not so?


  7. Chm - it seems to be used here for venues that aren't the salle des fetes. But Ken is right. The most common usage is as a word for household - I forgot that one.

  8. Hi Susan, I misunderstood you 'function room'. I thought you meant in a home, like the family room. Sorry about that. But your acceptation is perfectly all right. And of course it means where people of the same feather congregate, whether it is a room or a building, like "foyer des vieux de Preuilly". LOL!

    Judy, you have a "souche" right there in the first picture. It is the chimney stack that ends the conduit on the roof. That word is somewhat technical and mostly understood by trade people. Otherwise, "pour le commun des mortels" it is called, une cheminée.

  9. Judy, I'd never heard souche de cheminée before today.

    CHM and Susan, I think we might use the term "center" for foyer, which takes us back to "focus" etc. I know that in my town in the U.S. there's, for example, a Senior Citizens' Center. C'est le foyer des vieux ou des gens du troisième âge...

  10. DMR-LOL for the visual of a family gathered in a foyer with their laptops. Togetherness, but all are somewhere else on the Internet.

    Guess the families have many texting on their cellphones in the foyer this holiday season;)

  11. Judy

    You are right about Québec

    Foyer: fireplace
    La Cheminée : Chimney
    In real-estate business, they also use the Foyer in english to describe what we call "vestibule" in French.
    Then you have the expression "femme au foyer" ou "foyer conjugal" to mean "home" or household

    I leave you with the lyrics of the song : "fais du feu dans la cheminée" as it is snowing here :-)


  12. Thanks for the cheminée discussion. I've found it to be a puzzling word.

    I once commented to a French-Swiss friend that I didn't know of a word for "home" that carries the same emotional freight as it does in English. He proposed "foyer."

  13. It almost looks like someone tried to pull the chimney up the roof.

  14. Entertaining! When looking for our little house we quickly learned that in french estate agent speak we needed a chimney in the salon or we'd have no heat. Seemed bizarre to us English speakers, why would you want all that smoke in the hair dressers?


  15. Entertaining! When looking for our little house we quickly learned that in french estate agent speak we needed a chimney in the salon or we'd have no heat. Seemed bizarre to us English speakers, why would you want all that smoke in the hair dressers?


  16. Good morning world.... Tim 'ere [not t'wife]
    In UK english, when refering to steam engines, a smokestack is a smokestack!


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