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.