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).