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The French word "bêtise" means something like a small act of naughtiness (frequently used for small misdemeanours of children). I'm struggling to think of an equivalent word that could be used with an anglophone child.

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Can the "bêtise" be considered a harmless, even playful act? Mischief and its variants more often than not are affectionate or mildly reproving terms. – karan.dodia Feb 10 '12 at 22:18
@kpsfire yes that's exactly how it's used – tdc Feb 11 '12 at 19:38
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Folly and follies.

Bêtise derives its meaning from the word bête, literally beast – and in fact the words are related.

A literal translation, then, would be beastliness. In some situations that word might be the right choice. But when you want a translation that connotes harmless misdemeanors, it is not adequate for two reasons: (i) it does not so much connote harmlessness, and (ii) it is not countable.

But you can use the same conceptual metaphor: describing a person or his behavior by equating it to the behavior of something base, be it a class of persons, animals, plants, or whatever. English has many words that employ this metaphor: follies, foolishness, idiocy, imbecility, stupidity, tomfoolery (like a mentally deficient person), brutishness, bestiality (like an animal), and so on.

The advantages of folly are that it is countable (can be used in the plural, in a sentence such as: “Enough of your follies; go to your room”) and uses the same conceptual metaphor (equating the person's behavior to that of a fool), while at the same time it connotes relatively harmless foolishness rather than dangerous behavior.

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Nice answer! Those two criteria sum it up well – tdc Feb 13 '12 at 16:24
I don't like it, sorry. Folly implies pointlessness and frivolity, but not naughtiness. – slim Feb 13 '12 at 16:28
And I would argue that the connotation of bêtise is more the former than the latter. – MετάEd Feb 13 '12 at 16:39
Your suggestion follows the French in syntax expectation, but unlike 'bêtises', they do not match in frequency. At least in GenAmE, 'folly' is a very rare spoken word and would not be used as a thing to tell a child to stop. 'Foolishness' or 'tomfoolery' -might- be used, but only by a really uptight parent or one who just woke up from 80 years of sleep. – Mitch Feb 13 '12 at 16:53

The usual word for disobedient but generally harmless behavior is mischief. Note that this is a collective noun: Tom Sawyer commits mischief, commits five mischievous acts, or is known for his mischievousness, but he does not commit five mischiefs.

Children known for their mischief may alternatively be known for their high jinks, monkeyshines, or naughtiness, or they may be guilty of shenanigans or tomfoolery.

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monkey business – nohat Feb 10 '12 at 23:05
+1, but I think mischief is one of those words that can be used in countable and uncountable forms. There are many matches for "some mischiefs" in Google Books. – slim Feb 13 '12 at 16:30
@tdc Despite my answer (and edits to it), I kinda think that 'mischief' is the closest translation, preserves as much of the nuance of 'bêtise' (as much as I can know without being a fluent speaker of French) as possible. But AmE parents culturally just won't go in that direction 'stop your mischief', they'd be more likely to just allow the 'mischief' and at a great extreme -might- say, if anything at all, "quit being so annoying". That is, the most likely translation to AmE would be to not say anything at all. – Mitch Feb 13 '12 at 17:06

Translation of words is often difficult because sometimes They Just Don't Say Things That Way.

If in French you often refer to acts of naughtiness, in English correspondingly you talk about -being- naughty.

In French you probably say somewhat translated "stop with all your bêtises", but in English you'd say "stop being naughty" or "stop your foolishness". 'Naughty' is more about breaking rules or breaking things, and foolishness is just about being impertinent or not serious.

But those two phrases are somewhat out of date. The preferred locution (at least in GenAmE) nowdays would be

stop being so silly


don't get into any trouble

(the latter is of course more about breaking rules, and is advice, rather than after the fact).

As an aside, there is a literal translation, 'stupidities', but that is not really a recognized word in English. There is also the literal translation of 'small act of naughtiness' which is 'peccadillo' which is not really used for childish acts.

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The word I would use is prank.

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