French expressions – April 2022


Porter le chapeau (literally ‘to wear the hat’):

This expression means to be held accountable for something (a crime or failure).

Hats have been associated for centuries with social status, as looking at somebody’s hat one could usually determine their profession or social class. For example, aristocrats would often wear distinctive top hats.

In the 17th century, ‘putting a hat on someone’s head’ implied changing the hat they originally wore and therefore slandering them or ruining their reputation.

In the 20th century, the expression we hear today, ‘to wear the hat’, evolved with the meaning of being guilty or accused of something.

You may also hear faire porter le chapeau à quelqu’un (‘to make someone wear the hat’), which means to make someone responsible for something.

Sur les chapeaux de roues (literally ‘on the hats of the wheels’): 

This expression is often used with the verbs commencer (to start), partir (to leave) and démarrer (to start up/kick off).

It means to move off very quickly.

Les chapeaux des roues (‘the hats of the wheels’) was a term used to describe the hubcaps of a car – the decorative metal or plastic disks we find on wheels. When a driver took a turn too quickly, it would look like the hubcaps touched the ground and the expression evolved to refer to any activity that starts quickly.

Travailler du chapeau (literally ‘to work from the hat’):

This expression refers to someone who is perceived as delirious or a little bit crazy.

In the past, hat-makers in factories were exposed to mercury in the felt used to make the hats. They would therefore suffer from symptoms such as slurred speech, memory loss, insomnia and delusions.

To the outside eye, they would appear to be crazy, which inspired the expression.

In English, a saying of similar origin is ‘mad as a hatter’.


Un homme de paille (literally ‘a man of straw’):

An ‘homme de paille’ is somebody who presents themselves as someone else, often in a dubious affair.

In the 17th century, the expression was used to describe somebody of low social standing, with little financial means – they were seen to be as worthless as straw.

It is said that an association was made with someone who covers for others by lending their identity – his morals are worthless, again like straw.

However, another theory is that the expression was inspired by the straw mannequins used in combat training, which took hits instead of a real person.

Homme de main (literally ‘a handman’):

A ‘handman’ is someone who carries out (often violent) actions for another. An English equivalent might be ‘henchman’.

The hand in this expression represents action and is synonymous with combat. The ‘handman’ carries out the orders of someone else.

Comme un seul homme (literally ‘as a single man’):

This expression means ‘unanimously’, ‘together’ or ‘in agreement’.

It has its origins in the Old Testament, in the Book of Judges where ‘all the people [of Israel] stood like one man’ to demand justice for a crime that had been committed.

The image of ‘one man’ represents unity and is employed multiple times throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Samuel and Ezra.

One of its first recorded uses in the French language was in 1832 by the writer Balzac in his novel La Femme de trente ans (A Woman of Thirty). 

What languages and dialects are spoken in Alsace-Lorraine (Grand est region)?

“You will not have Alsace or Lorraine! “. This expression, popularized by the film of the same name, you have already heard it at least once. And for good reason: Alsace and Lorraine have crystallized the main disputes between Germany and France over the past 400 years.

Beyond the torments of history, these conflicts have nevertheless bequeathed to us a rich and singular linguistic heritage. For centuries, Alsatians and Lorrainers alternated between German and French, in addition to their dialects


Alsatian or Alsatian German refers to the Upper German spoken widely in Alsace, in particular the Alemannic and Franconian dialects. Alsatian is not a linguistic dialect group in and of itself, but rather a collective geographical term for the Upper German vernaculars that are spoken in the Alsace region.

In Alsace, the German dialects are generally more widely spoken than in Lorraine, where the French language and its dialects remain dominant. In a survey commissioned by the Office for Language and Culture in Alsace, 43 percent of residents in the Alsace region answered that they spoke Alsatian German, 33 percent answered that they had a basic knowledge of it and 25 percent had no knowledge of the Alsatian dialects. 

The Lorraine Dialects

Similar to the Alsatian, the Lorraine dialects refer to a collective geographical term for the Central German dialects spoken widely in Lorraine, in particular the Rhine Franconian and Moselle Franconian dialects, to which the Luxembourgish language also belongs. The Lorraine dialects shouldn’t be confused with the Lorrain language, which is sometimes considered a dialect of French and sometimes considered its own language (dialects and languages don’t always have hard boundaries).

The southern, central and western regions of Lorraine traditionally belong to the French-speaking world. The northwest region, on the other hand, has traditionally been part of the German-speaking world. The German-Lorraine dialects, however, have been in decline since the end of the Second World War and are threatened with extinction.

A Historical Overview Of Alsace-Lorraine

Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Celtic language was established in Alsace-Lorraine around 600 BCE. This was supplemented or replaced by Latin during the Roman period (ca. 60 BCE to ca. 400 CE). With the migration of peoples, Germanic dialects also entered the region and spread. In the Middle Ages, Alsace in particular was a predominantly German-speaking area. These Germanic dialects — particularly Alemannic and Franconian — are grouped together today under the term Alsatian.

Early Modernity

The present-day regions of Alsace and Lorraine belonged to the East Franconian Empire (later the Holy Roman Empire) after the Treaty of Meerssen in 870. The regions remained German for almost 700 years until 1552, when the French king obtained sovereignty over the diocese and the city of Metz with the Treaty of Chambord.

About 100 years later, in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the areas finally became a part of France. At the same time, France was granted the former Habsburg territories in Alsace. Most of Alsace-Lorraine was gradually annexed under Louis XIV in the second half of the 17th century. While the region had gradually become French, at least politically, it remained culturally influenced by German. The majority of the population continued to use German or their respective Germanic or Romance dialect in everyday speech. French, however, was the official language of administration, business and diplomacy.

The 19th Century

Despite the defeat of Napoleon, Alsace and Lorraine remained in France. The German-speaking inhabitants of the country — who in spite of French rule had largely remained connected to German culture before the French Revolution — increasingly oriented themselves towards France and Paris. Given that there was no general requirement that school be held in French, however, German remained the vernacular language in Alsace and German Lorraine.

The modern era was linguistically turbulent in Alsace-Lorraine, because language was now being used as a political means to mark one’s affiliation with France or the German Empire.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, parts of Alsace-Lorraine were annexed to the German Empire. The demarcation essentially followed the language boundary. That is, where it was strategically convenient. Suddenly, 200,000 people who spoke French as a native language — some 15 percent of the population of Alsace-Lorraine — found themselves belonging politically to Germany, just as the German-speaking residents of the same region had once suddenly found themselves in France.

With the passage of a March 1872 law, German became the official language of the region. This wasn’t as rigorous as one might assume, however. Yes, German was generally the official language of business, but in parts of the country with a predominantly French-speaking population, public notices and decrees had to be accompanied by a French translation. The new German administration also adapted to the language barriers in other ways. For example, in 1873 a law was passed that decreed that in areas where German was the vernacular, it would be the exclusive language of instruction in schools. In areas with an overwhelmingly French-speaking population, instruction would be conducted exclusively in French.

Additionally, the French names of locations in the French-speaking areas were retained. Some place names were Germanized in 1871, because it was suspected that an older Germanic form of the same name was behind them. This renaming was reversed when it turned out to be historically untenable.

Nevertheless, a decline in the French was palpable. In 1900, 11.6 percent of the population of the Empire spoke French as a native language. In 1905 that declined to 11 percent, and in 1910 further to 10.9 percent. The largest section of the French-speaking population lived in the Lorraine district. Here, 22.3 percent of the population was native French speakers in 1910. The only area with a majority French-speaking population in the year 1910 was Château-Salins (68.4 percent).

The World Wars

At the end of the World War I, Alsace-Lorraine returned once again to France. The language politics came sharply to a head, and were now strongly directed against the German language and the Alsatian dialect. French became the mandated and exclusive language of both business and school. At times, speaking German was even forbidden under penalty of law.

In 1919, a total of around 200,000 Germans from Alsace and Lorraine were expelled, with only around half able to return in the following months after American pressure on the French government.

The pendulum of restrictive language politics swung once again in the other direction, ever more strongly, during the occupation of Alsace-Lorraine by the National Socialist regime between 1940 and 1944. The Nazi government relocated and persecuted French residents without German roots. The hacking away of personal freedom in the name of Germanization went so far as to require French first names be converted to their German versions.

The ruthless Nazi policies hurt the German-speaking population after the end of World War II. Lingering resentment promoted the region’s return to France and the disintegration of the Standard German language in Alsace. The wish to include German in addition to French as the official language of government and business, present until 1940, hardly existed anymore.

Indeed, the French government’s policy of linguistic assimilation fell on fertile ground. French was seen as stylish, and the German dialects vanish. The majority of the population born after 1970 no longer speaks them at all.

Contemporary Languages In Alsace-Lorraine

Today, Alsace is shaped by bilingualism, with French is the official language of government, commerce and school instruction. The German dialects and Standard German are still spoken, albeit in sharp decline and mostly used by older generations and people in rural areas.

According to a 2001 study, 61 percent of the population of Alsace described themselves as speaking Alsatian. Among young people, only 25 percent answered that they occasionally used the regional language in conversation. Even more dismal for German, only around five percent of incoming schoolchildren had demonstrable skills in the language.

The Future Of German In Alsace-Lorraine

Contrary to what one might assume due to the declining number of speakers, the dialects in Alsace-Lorraine are currently in an interesting phase. They may soon be considered their own language. The Alsace-Lorraine dialects have been decoupled from Standard German. There are tendencies towards their own standardization, and since 2003, there has been an attempt through Orthal (Orthographe alsacienne) to unify and standardize the Alsatian spelling, meaning to create its own written language distinct from Standard German.

Recently, both private initiatives and the government have also been involved in supporting bilingual education in Alsace-Lorraine. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of students attending bilingual schools or kindergartens has risen. Who knows what language will dominate in Alsace and Lorraine in 50 years: French, a German dialect or a different language entirely?

Hauts-de-France has two regional languages: Picard (often called “Chti”) and West Flemish

Picard (often called “Chti”) language

A Belgo-Romance language, Picard stood out from the 5th century in the dialects of northern France: it was the time when the Picard “cat” or “cot” began to differentiate itself from the French “chat” . At the end of the 9th century, the Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie, one of the very first texts written in the vernacular (kept in the library of Valenciennes), included forms identifiable as Picardy: “cose” for “chose”, “diaule for “diable”.
Picard became a great literary language (scripta) between the 13th and 15th centuries, with authors such as Adam de la Halle and Jean Bodel (Arras), Froissart (Valenciennes), Robert de Clari (Cléry-sur-Somme near Péronne ), or even the anonymous chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette. It was also, in the big cities of the North, the language of administration and social regulation.

Picard is a language close to French, but it is neither a patois nor a dialect of French: sociolinguists speak of a “collateral language“. It has original phonetics, grammar and vocabulary, which can be learned for example in the French-Picard Dictionary published by the Regional Agency of the Picardy Language.

Picard is traditionally spoken in a large part of Hauts-de-France, including in the northern slopes where it is often called “Chti” or “Chtimi” (nickname given during the 1st World War to the Poilus du Nord, in reference to the Picard words “chti” [the one], “ti” and “mi” [you, me] which punctuated their conversations). It is also the regional language of Western Hainaut in Belgium. According to an INSEE survey in 1999, between 10% and 27% of the adult population of Nord, Pas-de-Calais and Somme spoke or understood Picard.

map of regional languages spoken in Hauts-de-France region

Picardy literature

From the prestigious medieval literature already mentioned, succeeded from the 17th century new literary modes such as the song or the pasquille. François Cottignies dit Brûle-Maison (1678-1742) from Lille is a precursor to a line of singers.

An abundant literature in the Picardy language developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the years 1840-1850 appeared political writings: the revolutionary Pierre-Louis Pinguet (Gosseu), in St-Quentin, the Bonapartist Clément Paillart in Abbeville (creator of the hero Jacques Croédur), Hector Crinon in Vermandois, Henri Carion (known as Jérôme Pleum’coq) in Cambrai. Then comes the time of singers and poets: Emmanuel Bourgeois in Vers-sur-Selle, the Lille resident Alexandre Desrousseaux (author of the famous P’tit Quinquin), Jules Watteuw (known as Le Broutteux) in Tourcoing. Over the course of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, authors multiplied, as did literary genres. The best known name for Picardy is that of Édouard David, sensitive poet of the small Amiens people (Chés lazards, Chés hortillonages…). In the North, a phenomenon unique in France, miners take up the pen in Picardy: Jules Mousseron, from Denain, the author of the famous stories of Cafougnette, is the best known. In Lille, Simons remains a prominent figure with his plays which earned him the nickname “Pagnol du Nord.”

From the 1960s, Picard took the turn of modernity: Pierre Garnier (from Saisseval) was an eminent representative of “spatialist poetry” with which he combined Picard, while in Belgium the great poet Géo Libbrecht, at the autumn of his life, returns to the Tournaisian Picard of his youth to create a sensitive work. At Berck, Ivar Ch’Vavar is a key figure in contemporary poetry in Picard and French.

At the start of the 21st century, the number of authors who continue to write in Picard is surprising. The Literature Prize organized by the “Agence Régionale de la Langue Picarde” receives dozens of quality texts each year. Major national publishers have undertaken to have popular works of French literature translated into Picard, in particular comic strips: Asterix, Tintin, Little Nicolas and the Little Prince have thus begun to speak Picard.

The Picardy Regional Language Agency

Since 2009, the Regional Agency for the Picardy Language has supported the Region in promoting the Picardy language. It works to improve the image of this language in all sectors, and to develop the presence of Picard in schools and extracurriculars. It accompanies the actors in their productions and their creations, distributes written, sound and audiovisual funds, provides training in Picard, supports the organization of unifying events in Picard such as the Festival ed ches Wèpes.

West Flemish language

West Flemish is spoken in France in most of the arrondissement of Dunkerque, in the Belgian province of West Flanders and in part of the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. The total number of speakers is estimated by Unesco at 1.5 million, including a few tens of thousands to varying degrees in France.

It comes directly from West Germanic. It is the result of the fusion of two currents, one Lower Franconian from the northeast and the other from the west attributed by linguists to the establishment of Saxons settled on the coast, in particular in the Boulonnais . Another theory, based on archaeological discoveries, evokes the hypothesis of a lingua franca born of economic exchanges between the two shores of the North Sea. This second influence explains the elements that West Flemish shares with English. From the Middle Ages and because of the geographical proximity, Picard lexical and phonological elements were incorporated. West Flemish has also undergone its own evolutions, particularly in France.

In its written form, the greatest authors lived mainly in Bruges during its great period of economic prosperity. We can cite Jacob van Maerlandt in the 13th century, Cornelis Everaert, Edward De Dene or Robert Lawet in the 16th century. From the end of the 16th century, the economic center moved from Bruges to Antwerp, which caused changes in the written language. The Flemish characteristics are rejected and the written language takes on a Brabant character. Then, after the fall of Antwerp in 1585, the economic and cultural center shifted again to the major cities of southern Holland. Significant changes then occurred in writing, which reflected the language of the Dutch elites. In the course of these developments, the written language has become increasingly distant from spoken West Flemish. The author who aspired to notoriety had to write in the written form in vogue at his time. The chambers of rhetoric will be centers for the dissemination of these different varieties of written language to the elites.

It will be necessary to wait until the 19th century to see literary texts in West Flemish again, in France at Petilion and in Belgium at Omer K. De Laey or at Guido Gezelle with a very particular form of written language mixing contemporary elements and others fallen into disuse in an attempt at purist research. Outside the literary context, the man in the street who was able to write a hybrid language mixing the regional language and written forms in use at his time.

From the 18th century, we see the beginning of a questioning of the written norm. For example, in 1791, Bouchette, a native of Winnezeele and Jacobin deputy for Bergues, criticized the distance between the language of an official text probably written by a rhetorician from Bergu and the language spoken by “the country people”, that is to say the West Flemish: “His first attempt is good, and much better than the Flemish of your municipal ordinance: it is detestable, and made to make fun of your country people. Why not write his mother tongue as the people speak it? “. Also during the French Revolution, in order to reach a more popular audience, propaganda texts were imbued with West Flemish.
Nowadays, books are regularly published in West Flemish or about this language in France and Belgium. Linguists publish many scientific articles about it. The song in West Flemish had a new start from the 80s of the last century and recently it is enjoying renewed popularity in Belgium.

French expressions March 2022


Avoir du cœur au ventre (literally ‘to have a heart in your stomach’)

This expression means to be brave. It dates back to at least the 15th century, when it was employed by prominent count and soldier Jean de Bueil.
It is said that in the Middle Ages, ‘ventre’ referred to not only the belly but also the torso and chest. The chest later became known as le petit ventre (‘the little belly’).
The heart, having symbolised qualities such as sensitivity and courage since Greek times, is in its rightful place in this expression, fulfilling the role it is known for – giving courage. 

Faire le joli coeur (literally ‘to behave like the pretty heart’)

This expression, which was coined in the mid-19th century, means to behave like a seducer.
The heart, being the central organ of circulation, has been long used metaphorically to symbolise love or affection.
The adjective joli is used ironically here, as the expression implies a level of cunning or disingenuity.

Haut les cœurs! (Literally ‘hearts up!’)

This expression is an encouragement to launch oneself into action with enthusiasm, coined in the Middle Ages.
When raised high, the heart – symbolising courage and energy among other virtues – meant overcoming anything that could be holding one back, such as fear, obstacles, and fatigue.
The expression is a translation of the Latin sursum corda, a versicle (sentence sung in church service aiming to incite a response) used in mass to encourage attendees to take part in enthusiastic worship.


Verser un pot-de-vin (literally ‘to pour a pot of wine’)

This expression means to bribe.
In the 16th century, to ‘pour a pot of wine’ simply meant to leave a tip – to thank somebody for their services, often in the form of a drink or a small sum of money to buy wine.
However, over the centuries the expression took on a negative meaning and now refers to offering somebody goods or money in order to gain some kind of advantage from them.

Boire le calice jusqu’à la lie (literally ‘to drink the chalice down to the dregs’)

This expression means to endure something painful until the end. This can be a test, an experience, a humiliation.

The saying was coined around the 17th century. Here, the reference is to the cup of wine drank by a priest during mass. In christianity, the chalice represents the wrath of God. To drink its wine to the dregs – the deposits left at the bottom – is therefore to endure something torturously painful until the very end.

(être un) Sac à vin (literally ‘to be a bag of wine’)

To be a sac à vin is to be a drunkard.

It is said that this expression was coined in the 15th century when it was used by women as a nickname for their drunken husbands. At the time, wine was stored in leather bags but the sac could also refer to the belly, which is known to grow with the consumption of alcohol.


‘Être dans le rouge’ (literally ‘to be in the red’) means to be in a delicate financial situation. It is particularly used when a bank account is in minus figures, as it is in English.

Être marqué au fer rouge (literally ‘to be branded with a red iron’):

This means to be traumatised.
During the Roman times, criminals were branded on the forehead with a red-hot iron, in part to remind them of their crimes and in part to warn the rest of the population.
While this punishment was eventually abolished, branding was still used on animals, especially cattle and sheep, in order to be able to differentiate them.
A red (hot) iron is therefore associated with suffering, and is used, in this expression, to symbolise trauma.

Tirer à boulets rouges (literally ‘to shoot red balls’)

The phrase means to verbally attack or insult somebody.

It is said to date back to King Frederick William I of Prussia in the 18th century, who wanted to make his cannonballs more destructive. As a result, he decided to heat them in a cannonball oven before launching them at the enemy.
In addition to the destruction caused by the collision, the heated cannonballs also started fires.

The expression was first used literally, but later took on a figurative sense of attacking verbally, which it has maintained to this day.

Le rouge est mis (literally ‘the red is placed’)

This expression means that a decision is final. It has been used since at least the beginning of the 20th century.

One theory is that it comes from the world of racing, where a red disk would be placed on the scoreboard to show that the results were final.
Another theory is that the term relates to television sets, where a red light indicates that no interruption is possible.


Mettre sa main au feu (literally ‘to put your hand in the fire’)

This expression means to be sure of something.
It originated in the Middle Ages when people accused of crimes were subjected to ‘trials by ordeal’ – painful ‘tests’ in which the results were thought to be the ‘judgement of God’ and therefore a sure way to determine a person’s guilt or innocence.

One such ordeal was trial by fire in which an accused would have to put his or her hand in fire or seize a red-hot iron. If the hand healed quickly, it would mean that the accused had told the truth.
Now, when somebody is very sure that what they are saying is correct, they say that they would put their hand into fire to prove it, certain that if this were the trial by fire, theirs would heal quickly.

Mettre le feu aux poudres (literally ‘to put fire into the powder’)

This expression means to trigger a violent reaction or aggravate a situation. An English equivalent might be ‘to add fuel to the fire’.

It derives from an older expression coined by the navy in the 16th century – mettre le feu aux étoupes. It translated to ‘to set fire to oakum’, which was used to make fuses for weapons, and meant to arouse anger.

In the 18th century, the oakum was replaced by (gun)powder in the expression.

The image is therefore of lighting the fuse of a powder keg and watching it ‘get angry’ and explode.

It is said that in the 18th century, the phrase also took on an erotic connotation but it has mostly lost that aspect, and is nowadays used mainly used to illustrate the act of provoking someone to get angry.

Tirer les marrons du feu (literally ‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire’)

This expression means to profit from or reap the benefits of something at someone else’s expense.

It was popularised in writer Jean de La Fontaine’s fable Le Singe et le Chat (The Monkey and the Cat), published in the second half of the 17th century.  In the fable, the monkey convinces the cat to take roasting chestnuts out of a fire, with the cat hurting his paw but the monkey himself remaining unharmed in the process.

The original expression was tirer les marrons du feu avec la patte du chat (‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire using the cat’s paw’), accusing the subject of the expression of a level of opportunism.

Although the expression was abbreviated to simply ‘pull chestnuts out of the fire’, it still often implies benefiting from something at somebody else’s expense.

FrancoProvençal, a dialect group spoken in east-central France, northern Italy and Switzerland.

FrancoProvençal (also FrancoprovençalPatoisGagaSavoyardArpitan or 
Romand) is a dialect group within Gallo-Romance originally spoken in east-central France, western Switzerland and northwestern Italy.

Franco-Provençal has several distinct dialects and is separate from but closely related to neighbouring Romance dialects (the langues d’oïl and the langues d’oc, in France, and Rhaeto-Romance in Switzerland and Italy).

Even with all its distinct dialects counted together, the number of Franco-Provençal speakers has been declining significantly and steadily. According to UNESCO, Franco-Provençal was already in 1995 a “potentially endangered language” in Italy and an “endangered language” in Switzerland and France. Ethnologue classifies it as “nearly extinct”.

The designation Franco-Provençal dates to the 19th century.
In the late 20th century, it was proposed that the language be referred to under the neologism Arpitan (Franco-Provençal: arpetan; Italian: arpitano), and its area as Arpitania; the use of both neologisms remains very limited, with most academics using the traditional form (often written without the dash: Francoprovençal), while its speakers actually refer to it almost exclusively as patois or under the names of its distinct dialects (SavoyardLyonnaisGaga in Saint-Étienne, etc.).

Formerly spoken throughout the Duchy of Savoy, Franco-Provençal is nowadays spoken mainly in the Aosta Valley, in Italy. It is also spoken in the alpine valleys around Turin and in two isolated towns (Faeto and Celle di San Vito) in Puglia.

Franco-Provençal is also spoken in rural areas of French-speaking Switzerland.

In France, it is one of the three Gallo-Romance language families of the country (alongside the langues d’oïl and the langues d’oc). Though it is a regional language of France, its use in the country is marginal. Still, organizations are attempting to preserve it through cultural events, education, scholarly research, and publishing.

Song in Arpitan from Billy Fumey

French expressions – February 2022


Français de souche (literally ‘French of the trunk’)

This expression refers to French people who do not have any immediate foreign descent.It was originally used in Algeria in the 19th century to designate colonists and later, to distinguish between pieds-noirs (French people born in Algeria) and French citizens of Algerian descent who are sometimes referred to as Français de papier (literally ‘French on paper’).In 1958, the terms Français de souche européenne (FSE) (literally ‘French of european trunk’) and Français de souche nord-africaine (FSNA) (literally ‘French of north african trunk’) became administrative (and thus official).

However, the phrase Français de souche is now controversial due to its association with the far right and avoided by many, especially left-leaning, politicians.

Parler français comme une vache espagnole (literally ‘to speak French like a Spanish cow’)

This expression means to speak French badly.
It is thought that it was coined in the 17th century, and that the ‘vache’ is a deformation of the word ‘vasque’, which designates somebody coming from the Basque Country in Spain. At the time, there was a large number of Basque valets in Paris, who likely did not speak French well, which would have inspired the phrase.

Jacques Collin parlait le français comme une vache espagnole.

Honoré de Balzac –Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes

De France et de Navarre (literally ‘from France and Navarre’)

This expression means ‘from everywhere’.
The Kingdom of Navarre, which was located in what is now the Spanish province of Navarra, was at various points, in full or in part, ruled by France.
As it was far from the rest of the country, the expression ‘from France and Navarre’ came to mean ‘from everywhere’.

Acheminé simultanément dans les cafés, les restaurants et chez les cavistes de France et de Navarre mais aussi dans toute l’Europe, aux États-Unis, jusqu’en Australie et à Hong Kong, chaque troisième jeudi de novembre, le beaujolais primeur s’écoule en trois mois à peine.

Magazine Que Choisir ? n° 233 de novembre 1987


Planter un drapeau (literally ‘to plant a flag’)

This expression has two main meanings.
According to the dictionary Trésor de la langue française, it means ‘to be the first to publicly express an opinion, to take a position’.
The flag, on one hand, is a symbol of belonging (for example to a nation). To plant one’s flag would therefore mean to express one’s belonging, in this case ideological.
However, the Larousse dictionary says the expression means to slip out of somewhere without paying.
A flag can also symbolise ownership. For example, when countries conquered a specific area, they would often hang their flag to make it known that it now fell under their control.
In the context of this expression, perhaps the implication is that the person ‘planting the flag’ appropriates something as their own (a meal in a restaurant, an object) without the right to do so – in this case, without paying.

Mettre son drapeau dans sa poche (literally ‘to put your flag in your pocket’)

This expression means to hide your views and/or beliefs.
If the flag symbolises identity and belonging, raising it would suggest expressing one’s opinions publicly. Placing it in one’s pocket, however, would mean to hide what you believe.
It is said that the expression was coined in the 19th century and may be related to the saying mettre quelque chose dans sa poche et son mouchoir par-dessus (literally ‘to put something in your pocket and your handkerchief over it’), which means to keep a secret. Here, the flag would be assimilated to the handkerchief.

Le drapeau noir flotte sur la marmite (literally ‘the black flag floats in the cooking pot’)

This expression, which was coined in the 20th century, is used to say that a household’s financial situation is dramatically bad.
A black flag symbolizes pirates, anarchists and, more generally, bad news or misfortune. If it floats in a cooking pot, it is because the pot is empty (or nearly empty) as there is nothing to eat due to the lack of money in the household.
The expression gave name to a film by renowned French director Michel Audiard released in 1971.


Être fort comme un Turc (‘to be strong like a turk’)

This expression originates in the 15th century when the Turks had a reputation for being strong, almost unbeatable warriors due to their numerous victories. At the time, the Ottoman Empire ruled large parts of south-east Europe, north Africa and western Asia.
It is said that François I, King of France, was gifted Turkish armour by Suleiman the Magnificent (the tenth and most famous sultan of the Ottoman Empire) during their alliance. When he wore it, he is said to have exclaimed: “Here I am now, strong as a Turk!”.

– J’en ai deux, monsieur, qui, sans vanité, pourraient être présentées au pape, surtout mon aînée, qui est un joli brin de fille. Je l’élève pour être comtesse, quoique sa mère ne le veuille pas.

– Quel âge a-t-elle, monsieur, cette future comtesse ?

– Mais elle approche de quinze ans : déjà cela vous est grand d’une toise, gentil, frais comme une matinée d’avril, leste, découplé, gaillard, et surtout fort comme un Turc.

– Diable ! voilà de bonnes dispositions pour être comtesse.

– Oh ! sa mère a beau dire, elle le sera. »

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra – Don Quichotte de la Manche

Saoul comme un Polonais (‘to be drunk like a Pole’)

This expression is said to have been coined in 1808, when Napoleon marched on Madrid accompanied by Polish cavalry.
During the Battle of Somosierra, the French won largely due to the Polish troops, who were instructed to charge at the Spaniards.
When, after the battle, the Polish soldiers were being introduced to the emperor, the French generals tried to undermine their achievements by attributing their courage to alcohol.
The Emperor responded, “Donc, messieurs, sachez être saouls comme des Polonais” (‘So, gentlemen, know how to be drunk like Poles’). 
Today the expression usually just refers to someone having drunk too much.

Ce n’est pas le Pérou (literally ‘it’s not Peru’)

When the French say that something n’est pas le Pérou, they mean to say that it has little worth or importance. Equally, the expression can be translated as, ‘it’s not a big deal’.
Around the 16th century, Peru was an important source of wealth due to its reserves of gold, silver and precious stones. In Europe, it was considered an ‘El Dorado’ – a place of great riches and opportunity.
The Spanish conquerors quickly depleted the country’s natural resources but Peru remained a place of wealth and greatness in the collective imagination for a long time after this.
Initially, the term c’est le Pérou (‘it’s Peru’) would be used to describe something important or valuable but over time, the expression has been inverted and the French now say ‘ce n’est pas le Pérou’ to describe something of little importance. 

Je gagne 900 F. par mois, plus les primes ça fait 903
Mais avec toutes les retenues, ça fait 802 tout au plus
C’est pas beaucoup, c’est pas l’Pérou
Mais c’est à vous”


French expressions – January 2022


Ours mal léché (literally ‘badly licked bear’)

This expression describes somebody who is antisocial, irritable or ill-mannered.It was coined in the 17th century, when it was believed that bear mothers would lick their cubs for many hours in order to clean them, shape them and have them be accepted by other bears.
At the time, it was used to refer to somebody with physical deformities, as a bear that was ‘badly licked’ would have been thought to be not in the correct physical shape.
By extension, this meant that they were not ready to enter and settle into society, and the expression evolved in the 18th century to designate somebody who has poor social skills or is constantly grumpy – a social deformity of sorts.

 “Il avait vécu dans le monde; il avait des talents, quelque savoir, de la douceur, de la politesse; il savait la musique, et comme j’étais de chambrée avec lui, nous nous étions liés de préférence au milieu des ours mal léchés qui nous entouraient.”

Rousseau – Les confessions

Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué (literally ‘to sell a bear’s skin before having killed it’):

This expression means to celebrate or take advantage of something which has not yet happened or which is not certain to take place. 
The English equivalent would be ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’
In the middle ages, bear skin was a popular material to make blankets. The current expression was used in the form vendre la peau avant qu’on ait la bête (‘to sell the skin before one has the beast’).
It was popularised by writer Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century in his fable L’ours et les deux compagnons (The Bear and the Two Companions), in which two friends sell the skin of a bear that they have not yet killed, but plan to. 
However, when they go to kill the bear, they are unable to and while one of them lays on the ground pretending to be dead, the bear whispers a moral in his ear: Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant qu’on ne l’ait mis à terre (‘one must never sell the skin of a bear they haven’t put down yet’).
The phrase has evolved slightly over.

“Il m’a dit qu’il ne faut jamais
Vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre”

Jean de la fontaine – L’ours et les deux Compagnons

Être le dindon de la farce (literally ‘to be the turkey of the prank’):

This expression means to be the butt of the joke or subject of a prank.
It is said to have originated in the 18th century, with the ‘ballet des dindons’ – a form of fairground entertainment in Paris where turkeys were locked in a cage whose metal floor was gradually heated, causing them to ‘dance’ in pain, making the audience laugh.
The event was banned in 1844 but the expression remains commonly used to identify someone whose misfortunes, whether serious or not, others laugh at.

Quand les poules auront des dents (literally ‘when hens have teeth’):

This expression is used to refer to something that will never happen.
This phrase derives from another expression with the same meaning used in the 19th century – quand les poules pisseront (literally ‘when hens pee’). As hens don’t have a bladder, they don’t pass urine as we know it.
Equally, hens do not have teeth, so to do something ‘when hens have teeth’ means to never do it.
Various countries and languages have their own variations of this expression. For example, the English equivalent is ‘when pigs fly’.

« — Quand te marieras-tu, toi ?
— Quand les poules auront des dents.
— Y en a qui en ont. »

Raymond Queneau – Le dimanche de la vie

Être une poule mouillée (literally ‘ to be a wet hen’)

To call somebody a wet hen is to call them a coward.
According to Pierre-Marie Quitard’s 1842 Dictionnaire des proverbes (Dictionary of Proverbs), a chicken that gets wet from the rain ‘just stands in the background, without moving, as if ashamed or dejected’ – an image which inspired the phrase we hear today. The expression has been around since the 17th century.

Manger du lion (literally ‘to eat lion’)

When somebody has lots of energy, it is said that they have eaten lion.
The lion, with its reputation of strength and courage, represents by extension vitality and energy.
When someone is said to have eaten lion, it suggests therefore that they have consumed its qualities and exhibit an extraordinary amount of energy.

La part du lion (literally ‘the part of the lion’)

This expression refers to the biggest or best part of something.
It dates back to writer Jean de La Fontaine’s 1668 fable La Génisse, la Chèvre et la Brebis, en société avec le Lion (The Heifer, the Goat and the Sheep in Company with the Lion). In the fable, the animals plan to share a stag that had been snared but the lion claims the totality of the meal, considering himself the strongest and most deserving.
The expression was popularised, however, by writer Victor de Hugo in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). The expression has an English equivalent, ‘the lion’s share’. 

Coeur de lion (literally ‘the heart of a lion’)

Someone with a ‘lion’s heart’ is considered to be very brave. The lion, as the ‘King of the Jungle’, has long had the reputation of being daring and courageous.
It was also a title given to numerous medieval monarchs, including Louis VIII of France and Richard I of England.

Entre chien et loup (literally ‘between dog and wolf’)

This expression refers to the time of dusk, when it is “too dark to distinguish between a dog and a wolf”. 
It is attributed to the 13th century but is said to be much older, deriving from the Latin ‘inter canem et lupum’. Here, the dog, trustworthy and warm, represents the day. The wolf, menacing and unknown, represents the night.

Dormir en chien de fusil (literally ‘to sleep like the dog of a rifle’)

This expression means to look at each other with suspension or mistrust.
Faïence is a term for tin-glazed pottery, named after the city of Faenza, Italy, where the technique was popularised in the 16th century.
In France, these earthenware decorations, in particular in the form of dogs, were placed on either side of fireplaces. The ‘dogs’ would appear to be staring at each other, as if suspicious of one another, which inspired the expression.

“Il remarqua seulement qu’elle était couchée en chien de fusil, et se promit de lui dire dire que ce n’était pas bon pour la circulation”

Henry de Montherlant, le démon du Chien (1937)

Faire des yeux de merlan frit (literally ‘to make fried whiting eyes’)

This expression refers to a look exchanged between lovers – completely enamoured and, to onlookers, a bit ridiculous.
Initially, this expression was used in the 18th century in the form of faire des yeux de carpe frite, meaning ‘make fried carp eyes’. 
Presumably, it was inspired by the open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression we see on fried fish.
Silent cinema in the 20th century gave the expression much of its meaning, as actors would have to really exaggerate their facial expressions to convey emotions.

“Oh ! tu peux nier tant que tu voudras, j’ai assez l’expérience des femmes, alleï ! Toi et tes yeux de merlan frit, quand tu le regardes ! “

Robert Choquette – Les Velder – 1941

Engueuler quelqu’un comme du poisson pourri (literally ‘to shout at someone like a rotten fish’)

This expression means to shout at someone, usually hurling insults.
It is said to date to the 20th century and be inspired by fish merchants who had a reputation for being loud and aggressive.
It could also relate to the fact that rotten fish have no value for merchants and would be thrown away. Therefore, to ‘shout at someone like a rotten fish’ would mean to give them as little consideration as one would a rotten fish.

« Mais que cela ne vous empêche pas, si vos relations avec votre patron vous le permettent, de l‘engueuler comme du poisson pourri, et de lui dire qu’on lui revaudra ça. »

Jules Romains – Les hommes de bonne volonté – Tome X – 1935

Il y a anguille sous roche (literally ‘there is an eel under the rock’)

This expression means that something suspicious is going on. The English equivalent might be ‘I smell a rat’.
It is said to have been coined in the Middle Ages.
Eels, which avoid light and spend much of their time during the day in the shade of rocks, are assimilated to snakes. Both animals are associated with cunningness and deception.
Furthermore, the position of the eel in this expression – under the rock – indicates something hidden.
The ‘anguille’ also alludes to the verb ‘guiller’, which in Old French meant to deceive or trick.

« Mais n’y aurait-il pas encore ici anguille sous roche, c’est-à-dire quelque allégorie cachée, quelque allusion maligne à un tournoi de la cour de François Ier ou de Henri II ? »

François Rabelais – Pantagruel

Finir en queue de poisson (‘to end up in a fishtail’)

The French say something ‘ends up in a fishtail’ when it ends abruptly, without the desired or expected results.
Legend has it that a sailor spent months at sea searching for a woman he had seen. However, once he found her and dived into the water, he saw that she was not a woman but  a mermaid – with a literal fishtail.
Some sources date this story to the Roman poet Horace, as early as the first century BC. 
In France, it was popularised in part in the 19th century by the writer Balzac, who used the analogy to describe the streets of Paris.
The fishtail is now used commonly to symbolise any disappointing or unexpected result. 

Je commence à me demander si ce sujet était bon, je pense qu’il va finir en queue de poisson

Noyer le poisson (‘to drown the fish’)

This expression means to create confusion.
Some sources claim that it derived from the older saying, ‘la sauce fait passer le poisson’ (‘the sauce makes the fish pass’), which implies any bad taste from a fish is ‘drowned’ by the sauce. This mixture – or perhaps better said confusion – of flavours makes it easier to eat the fish.
Another theory is that the phrase relates to a 19th century fishing method, where in order to tire out a fish caught on a hook, fishermen would plunge it in and out of water. The constant change between water and air makes for the confusion alluded to in the expression.

Muet comme une carpe (‘mute like a carp’)

To be as mute as a carp means to say nothing.
This is likely a development of the older phrase ‘muet comme un poisson’ (‘mute like a fish’), which was coined in the early 17th century and popularised by the likes of writer Rabelais. 
The connection here is evident – fish cannot speak. Carp, however, have the habit of sticking their heads out of water and opening their mouths, as if they are trying to speak but are unable to.