No matter how long you live here, or however good you think your French is, you always come across new phrases and expressions, some of them quite bizarre if translated literally. Like our own idiomatic expressions in English, there’s usually a history behind them. This, for me, is one of the pleasures of living in another country. Not only do you learn another language, but you also expand your cultural horizons.
At dinner with a group of French friends recently, we talked about some notable event that occurred locally. It was so notable that I’ve forgotten what it was. That’s not the point. One of our friends came out with a phrase I had never heard before.
“Toutes les huiles étaient là,” he said.
Les huiles? The oils? After a few seconds, it dawned on me that he meant the local VIPs: le maire, le conseiller générale, even le deputé (Member of Parliament). None of our friends knew the origins of the expression, but they all knew what it meant.
Armed with this addition to my French vocabulary, I consulted Google. Along the way, I found some other colloquial ways of referring to important people.
The exact origin remains unknown, but around the end of the 19th century if one said that a person “nage dans les huiles” (swims in the oil), it means they rub shoulders with important people.
Beyond that, the only explanation I’ve found is a bit tenuous. Military insignia denoting rank are called “sardines”. The more you have beneath the level of General, the higher your rank. Sardines bathe in oil in their tins. So the more “sardines” you have, the more of une huile you are. Hmm.
Sticking with the culinary theme, if someone is a grosse légume, they are a powerful person with social influence. The phrase originated in the mid-19th century, when the word légume (vegetable) used to be feminine. It’s now masculine. Originally, it was applied to a superior officer, but the definition has expanded to include anyone of importance, including underworld bosses.
The closest English equivalent would be big cheese.
On the other hand, un gros légume is a person who vegetates and has little purpose in life, possibly with a fat tummy as evidence of their indolence.
Big fish. This one has its origins in police slang: an important suspect that you want to catch, using the fisherman’s patience and cunning. Also, certain types of fishing with nets are advantageous for catching the big specimens.
Literally a big hat, this expression apparently originated in the 17th century, when doctors, ecclesiastics and judges wore large, square hats designating their profession. Judging by some of the ways in which it’s been employed, it wasn’t always respectful:
On sait bien que les gros bonnets couvrent des têtes vides. It’s well known that big hats cover empty heads.
These days, again, it’s used to designate anyone who is powerful or high-ranking.
Bigwig would be the English equivalent, which refers to the fashion for wearing wigs that originated in the 17th century. The wealthier you were, the bigger the wig you could afford, since they were expensive.
So, equipped with this useful knowledge, you can sally forth into French society and stun your friends with your extensive vocabulary. But it’s probably not a good idea to refer to a VIP as one of the above in their hearing.
You might also like:
Copyright © Life on La Lune 2019. All rights reserved.