Word of the Week: Tenir

Word of the Week: Tenir

A verb that can lift your soul to the heavens or put you down to the lowest depths of disdain, the word tenir has many more layers than it first appears. So many, in fact, that we are just going to attempt to scratch the surface here.

In most cases, the word tenir acts in exactly the same way as the verb to hold in English, and in some cases the meaning comes pretty close. Tenir la main, to hold handsor tenir les commandes d’une entreprise, for example, means to be at the helm of a business, tenir l’alcool describes people who can enjoy the local eau de vie and still string two sentences together–no easy feat.

There are instances, however, where the word tenir takes on a different personality. When used in the negative, que cela ne tienne, implies that there is no obstacle, Il ne tiendra qu’à vous que je vous arrache de ce misérable lieu” (Molière, in Don Juan: there’s nothing but for me to tear you away from this miserable place). To describe Scrooge, you might use the expression Cet homme tient bien ce qu’il tient (the man likes to keep what he has).

In a figurative sense, from one extreme to the other, to be a godparent is to tenir un enfant sur les fonts (to hold the baby up above the baptismal font) but when you cross that aunt that never thought you’d amount to much of anything anyway, she’ll just pick the right moment in front of the entire family and click her tongue and exclaim a damning tiens!…I told you so.

In a more charitable sense, it means to support, « Il va falloir beaucoup l’entourer », répétait ta mère. « Heureusement que nous sommes une famille où l’on se tient les uns les autres. Il ne faut pas laisser seule cette petite » (written by Mauriac in Viper’s Nest,  We must support him greatly, repeated your mother, fortunately we are a family that supports each other well. We mustn’t leave this little one alone.)

Just because it’s a verb – not that this is my forte – we’ll bow down to visit its simplest declination, the present tense:

Je tiens—I hold, I am holding
Tu tiens—you hold, you are holding (sing. fam.)
Il tient—he/it holds, he/it is holding
Elle tient—she/it holds, she/it is holding
Nous tenons—we hold, we are holding
Vous tenez—you hold, you are holding (pol. pl.)
Ils tiennent—they (m.) hold, they are holding
Elles tiennent—they (f.) hold, they are holding

Se tenir de près in a competition speaks of being so close that you can hardly tell who is ahead and to express the fortitude to sustain one of life’s reversals, tenir le coup or tenir bon and finally, as all of us learners of French know very well –we are no strangers to persistence– in order to keep making progress with the language …

…il faut tenir la route!

Find more French verbs here
Photo by vl8189 via Flickr

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Sylvia is a freelance journalist based in France, focusing on business and culture. A valued member of the France Media editorial team, Sylvia is a regular contributor to our publication.

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  • Sylvia Davis, Property & Living Editor
    2013-11-06 18:38:17
    Sylvia Davis, Property & Living Editor
    That's a lovely expression, thank you pépère the cat (I have a mémère la chienne at home).


  • pépère the cat
    2013-11-05 22:56:30
    pépère the cat
    Or you can say "je tiens à toi" when you're not quite ready to say "je t'aime".