Life on La Lune: Yet more French colloquial phrases

Life on La Lune: Yet more French colloquial phrases

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Getting bored with vocabulary practice? Here are some fun phrases to get you motivated.

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 the 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***ting 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 two 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.

Read the full series:


Reprinted with the permission of Life on La Lune.

Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer living in southwest France since 1997. As well as writing research reports and magazine articles she also blogs about France, aiming to show life there as it is, warts and all.

Updated 2013; July 2015.

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