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The author of my favorite webcomic asked about this on Twitter. I wasn't sure whether to post this on Aviation (but they redirect passenger-side aviation questions here) or on the French stack, but I decided to post it here since there might be people here with practical knowledge.

https://twitter.com/grrlpowercomic/status/1642555243916296193

Okay, question for people who speak romance languages. I looked up "occupied" in French to see what would appear on an airline bathroom door, but apparently there's a masculine occupé and a feminine occupée.

Not sure how you occupy something in a masculine way, but that's besides the point. On an omni-gender bathroom, I assume it would default to masculine, because of, you know, the history of the entire world?

I think the likely context for this question is that one of his characters who recently ate some VERY spicy hot sauce is currently refreshing herself in a civilian airliner that's scheduled to fly from Senegal to the USA. Some replies to his question said it would use the masculine term "occupé" because that's what many things default to for historical reasons, others said it would use the feminine term "occupée" because most terms that would be used for this are gendered feminine in French, and some people (including me) said that it would actually use the English term "occupied" because aviation defaults to English in most parts of the world to avoid accidents due to miscommunication.

Which of the three would it be in this case?

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    “Occupé” refers to the bathroom. A French speaker would choose a gender marker based on the word used (implicitly) to refer to it (e.g. “la salle de bain est occupée” or “le bureau est occupé”). The gender of the person in it is linguistically irrelevant so the second tweet quoted is completely off-base.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 2, 2023 at 17:21
  • I’m voting to close this question because it is actually a language question, but with the current amount of activity it feels wrong to migrate the question.
    – Willeke
    Apr 3, 2023 at 8:18
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    Apr 3, 2023 at 8:19

4 Answers 4

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The internal decoration of an aircraft can vary even within one company.

You may see bilingual signs, English-only signs, symbol combined with word(s), or symbol-only signs.

From personal experience, at least some Air France airplanes use the English "Occupied". Air Canada often avoids using words at all and relies on colour and symbol indications, as they are legally obligated to have text signages in both official languages of Canada (English and French), e.g. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/air-canada-french-language-lawsuit-trnd/index.html.

Signages with only an adjective in French usually use the masculine form, for example, "FERMÉ" (accents may be omitted in capital letters) is usually used before a closed road, even if the road ("route") is feminine. This is consistent with the agreement with the neutral demonstrative pronoun "ce", but you'll have to ask French SE for the actual reason. It is however not wrong to use feminine alone, although the masculine form is often preferred simply because it needs less space.

However, if the adjective appears with the noun it describes, the gender and number agreement is required, e.g. "ROUTE FERMÉE" or "PORTE FERMÉE". The gender of the occupier is never relevant.

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    For a road it’s more likely to be “route barrée”.
    – jcaron
    Apr 2, 2023 at 21:19
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    It might also be worth noting that la toilette has to do with washing oneself, whereas the WC is properly known as les toilettes, even if there's only one, so if the adjective were to be in agreement with the noun it might have to be occupées. The fact is, however, that the word on signs for this purpose is invariably occupé, since as you note there is no specific noun with which the adjective must agree. Whether occupé appears on any door in any airplane I do not know, but it certainly appears on similar doors in other contexts, as a bit of image searching readily confirms.
    – phoog
    Apr 2, 2023 at 21:26
  • @phoog certainly “la toilette” to identify the room where one does “sa toilettes” is common, in the same way that “washroom” is used although “washrooms” is probably a little more common. Apr 2, 2023 at 21:33
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    @ZeroTheHero Not in France, at least not in the variants of French I am familiar with, I think it may be the case in Belgium. In France, “les toilettes” (referring to a room) is always plural. As phoog explained,, “toilette” (singular) usually refers to the act of washing oneself or, in a very old-fashioned way, to the clothes and accessories a woman is wearing.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 2, 2023 at 23:05
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    French here, and Relaxed is right @ZeroTheHero, I have never seen "la toilette" to identify the room. Apr 3, 2023 at 6:46
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Not quite an answer, but more of a frame challenge:

I think this question hinges on a missunderstanding on how gendered nouns (and following from that: adjectives) work in romance languages. The form of the adjective depends on the thing that is beeing discribed (here the toilet) and not necessarily on the person doing the thing. So what ever the correct word is to indicate an occupied toilet in french (from what I remember of high school french and some of the other answers and comments in this thread I would say: "occupé") it would be the same on the mens and the womens bathroom!

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I certainly don’t pay much attention to that, but I’m pretty confident they actually use the English wording “occupied”, in red, or just red. Very subjectively I would say it used to be “occupied” and now it’s just red, but I would need to pay more attention.

On the ground in France, if there’s any text (it’s way more likely to be colour-coded: red for occupied and green or white or off for available), it will say “occupé”.

Note that this is for France. Usage may vary a lot in other French speaking countries, I definitely can’t remember what the usage could be in other places such as Senegal or Quebec.

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    Image search suggests that it's often a little red circle with a horizontal white bar, known to those who are familiar with traffic signs. I suppose that Canadian airlines, at least, prefer this approach because of the difficulty of squeezing both English and French into the tiny window, as noted elsewhere.
    – phoog
    Apr 2, 2023 at 21:33
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For an airline, it's typically just going to either say "Occupied" in English or else use a symbol and avoid words entirely. I don't recall Air France being different in this regard on my flights with them. Some also include the local language and/or other common languages in the region, but almost all signs in passenger cabins will include English at a minimum if they have words at all. For a large, global airline like Air France, where a given jet could be flying to nearly any part of the world on any given day, the signs have to be able to be understood by as wide of an international audience as possible.

This is not so much because of English being the language of aviation, though. That really only applies to pilots and air traffic controllers and, even there, France is something of an exception. French pilots and controllers often speak French to each other on frequency, much to the dismay of everyone else on frequency who lose situational awareness as a result, though this is allowed by ICAO if the pilot agrees.

The real reason for English (or symbols with no words) being used on signs in airliners is that it's the language most likely to be understood by passengers in the vast majority of the world. Airlines (and other travel-related industries) tend to deal with heavily international audiences. It's completely normal for airline flights to have passengers with a dozen or more different native languages, especially on international flights. This is especially true in Europe, where even traveling 300 km will often put you in another country with a different native language. English is the de facto lingua franca of international travel in most of the world, so, when words are used at all on signs, English is usually at least included in order to maximize the number of passengers who will understand the signs. For example, say you have passengers from Germany, Senegal, India, and Brazil traveling to South Korea. The odds are very high that the only language that all of those people will have in common with the South Koreans is English.

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