top of page
  • Writer's pictureCarsten Sprotte

La Tendresse

Spring teachings of tender green

Every spring reminds us of the fragility and tenderness of new life emerging.

The leaves that burst forth by the millions are an indomitable force, yet each taken individually is a tender green shoot. The sight of one of these newly-formed leaves, just like the sight of a hatched chick or a newborn baby, inspires in us an emotion we call tenderness, or in French, la tendresse.

The meaning of the two are equivalent, but you are far more likely to hear la tendresse in French than “tenderness” in English. I affirm this rather intuitively, having spoken these two languages for the past 30 years. My intuition can now be confirmed using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which scans the entire corpus of published books (English or French) for occurrences of any given word. You can observe for yourself that in both languages, the usage decreased since the 19th century, but much more in English than in French. 

Whatever remains of tenderness in English seems to have been reduced to the acronym “TLC”. The French has at least maintained the silky and soothing poetic potential of la tendresse.

What does it signify, when a word is more prevalent in one culture than another? I would suggest that such culture places greater value on the human quality for which that word stands. In other words, la tendresse is a quality valued more by the French than tenderness is valued by Anglophone cultures. That is of course debatable, but it does corroborate with the theory of French culture generally placing more value on the finer and gentler qualities of life. 

A French song from the 1960s called La Tendresse popularized by Bourvil and the year after by Marie Laforêt aptly captures the spirit of the word in such strophes as:

 “on peut vivre sans richesse…mais ne pourra jamais vivre sans tendresse.” 

 “sans la tendresse, l’amour ne serait rien.”

Coco Channel is quoted as saying:

Les seuls beaux yeux sont ceux qui vous regardent avec tendresse.”

(The only beautiful eyes are those that look upon you with tenderness.)

A la recherche du temps perdu, that great edifice of early 20th-century French literature by Marcel Proust, is permeated by la tendresse. Proust uses la tendresse for purposes that are sometimes aesthetic and other times philosophical. Listening to a passage of music, he marvels how with only a few piano keys, the pianist can produce "quelques millions de touches de tendresse." Maurice Ravel, a contemporary of Proust, was also a composer with a gift for expressing la tendresse, as you can hear in such works as the ballet suite "Ma Mère l'Oie" or the adagio of his piano concerto in G major.

In another place, Proust suggests that la tendresse ensemence nos coeurs" (seeds our hearts). He goes on to wonder "La vie ne m’apparaissait plus comme ayant pour but la vérité, mais la tendresse.” (Life no longer seemed to have truth as its goal, but tenderness.)

Contemporary French author Joëlle Laurencin rhymes her way through a finer French lesson for us:

La tendresse est une allégresse, que l'on adresse à quiconque est en détresse. C'est une gentillesse et délicatesse, sans fausse promesse. C'est une richesse sauvagesse, sans ivresse autre, que celle que l'on caresse.

I refrain from translating the above, because the rhymes--without which the text is pointless--are impossible to translate. Time to roll up your sleeves (or your tongue) and delve into finer French!

Finally, while we’re still hissing our way through those “esses”, we should give mention to Hermann Hesse who wrote : 

“La tendresse est plus forte que la dureté, l'eau est plus forte que le rocher, l'amour est plus fort que la violence.” (Tenderness is stronger than hardness, water is stronger than rock, love is stronger than violence.)

Current and recurring “news” does not substantiate any such claim, but the eternal springtime does. How many more Springtimes will it take for us to get in sync with the season and the fundamental flow of life?


Here are a few of my photos that I hope may also convey a sense of la tendresse:

  • the soft radiance of the rising sun

  • the gentle drops of dew

  • the delicate budding of tulips

  • the tender new growth from the rough old oak

  • les roses de mai et leur parfum de tendresse

  • eyes of love set upon that island on the Seine


bottom of page