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”