Yet More French Colloquial Phrases

French is a remarkably colourful language. When at school, struggling to conjugate irregular verbs and make nouns and adjectives agree, I would certainly have disagreed with that statement. Having struck up a more intimate acquaintance with the language during our 15 years here, I have come to appreciate its richness. Naturally, colloquial parlance and textbook French are miles apart.

Luc Ferry, former education minister and philosopher, wrote an interesting and amusing article in Thursday’s Figaro. He celebrated the ability of colloquial phrases to convey meaning vividly in a few words. Many of these phrases – being a bit rude – would not elicit the approval of the Académie française, the guardian of the French language. But they are rooted in French history and culture and say more than standard French ever could.

Luc Ferry quoted four examples. There is no way I can translate them without including the rude bits. So the pure in heart had better look away now.

The first phrase is used to denote an insufferably arrogant person:

Il prend la raie de son cul pour le méridian” – he thinks the crease of his bottom is the meridian.

It’s interesting that, in French, people like that are often described in relation to that part of the anatomy.

His second example was, “Mettre la dinde dans le marron” – put the turkey into the chestnut. This is clearly impossible and that is exactly what this phrase means – to try to do the impossible.

The third one is interesting because it’s one that some people suspect Ferry himself of inventing. In his article he says he heard someone else use it but another website cites several occasions on which he employed it himself:

Je veux bien être pendu sous un fraisier” – I would be prepared to be hanged under a strawberry plant. This phrase is supposed to be preceded by another to the effect of, “If such and such happened…” In other words, the likelihood of its happening is infinitesimal.

The final one, Ferry found in Montaigne’s Essais. In this particular essay, Montaigne rejected the idea of marriage based on romantic love. He said that marrying your lover would be like:

Chier dans le panier avant de se le mettre sur sa tête” – s**tting in the basket before putting it on your head.

Well, that’s pretty graphic. I’m not sure if this one has passed into common parlance. I’ve never encountered it and my Internet researches don’t turn up anything.

You have to be very careful when employing colloquial expressions in another language. And I don’t think I shall be using most of these when I speak to French people, except perhaps number 2 about the turkey and the chestnut. That seems particularly apt and it isn’t vulgar.

As always, I’ll be interested to hear of any other phases you have come across – rude or otherwise.  

While I’m writing about language, I read recently that learning another language to a reasonable standard can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by up to five years. I’d like to know if it’s cumulative: so if you learn two, do you get a 10 year reprieve and so on? I suspect it’s unlikely, so I’ll just stick with French.

See my other posts about French under ‘Language’ in the Topics tab in the right-hand sidebar.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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6 Responses to Yet More French Colloquial Phrases

  1. David says:

    One detail about those expressions: I have never heard them before.
    I’m not saying they’re made up, just that people shouldn’t be thinking that they’re common colloquial expressions. They’re not. And seeing how it’s Luc Ferry who mentioned them, I’m not surprised. He’s a bit too pedantic to use common expressions to illustrate his point. While it would make more sense, that would also “lower” him to the common people.

    (two other details: it’s “le méridien” and “le marron”)

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    • nessafrance says:

      Interesting: I have actually come across the first two elsewhere. As I said, he probably made up the third himself and the fourth comes from Montaigne but probably isn’t in common parlance.

      Thanks also for pointing out the typos, which I have fixed.

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  2. Sue Whatmough says:

    Great stuff! Loved the one about the basket. They’re also keen on expressions relating to eating and food. Have you heard ‘ne pas être dans son assiette’ – to be off-colour or out of sorts, ‘occupe-toi de tes oignons’ – mind your own business and ‘des prunes!’ – no way! Very colourful.

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  3. Maggie says:

    Very interesting as usual! Unfortunately, either my French is too weak or people are too careful around me, but I’d really like to know what people say when they swear in SW France!!! In Quebecois Canadian French, one uses words from the Church — tabernacle, taberniche etc…. Not sure of what is said in Acadian Canadian French; might be different; will ask someone I know well enough… HOpe it’s true about Alzheimers!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ll have to give this some thought, otherwise I will have my knuckles rapped by French readers. Although French people did use words derived from religion – miladiou, for example – I don’t think they do any more. I haven’t heard a lot of swearing. They do use m**de quite a lot.

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