Avoir le feu sacré and other French ‘fire’ expressions

Improvised New Year’s eve fireworks have been banned in the south of France. We look at French expressions with the word feu

27 December 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

Improvised fireworks (feux d'artifices) have been banned until January 2 in the Alpes-Maritimes department.

The sale, possession and use of fireworks has been banned in the area for anyone who is not qualified and does not have authorisation to use them.

Prefect Bernard Gonzalez said the move was due to concerns with safety and noise pollution.

We look at three French expressions with the word feu:

Avoir le feu sacré (literally ‘to have the sacred fire’):

This expression means to be enthusiastic or passionate about something, especially a profession. An English equivalent might be ‘to have fire in your belly’.

The dictionary Trésor de la langue française defines the feu sacré as ‘perpetual fire maintained by the vestals in the temple of Vesta’. Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth and vestals were her priestesses.

The fire had to be maintained so that anybody from the city could use it for household use. If it went out, it was believed that the goddess would withdraw her protection of the city and the vestals would be punished.

The feu sacré therefore symbolises extreme dedication, passion and hard work.

The popularisation of the expression is often attributed to French writer Voltaire in the 18th century.

Il n’y a pas le feu au lac (literally ‘there is no fire in the lake’):

This expression is used to express that there is no rush or urgency.

In the 20th century, it was originally used in the form of il n’y a pas le feu (‘there is no fire’) but the later addition of au lac is said to reference Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French) and to have been added to gently mock the Swiss people, who have a reputation of being slow speakers.

N’y voir que du feu (literally ‘to only see fire’):

This expression, which can be traced back to the 18th century, means to not notice or understand anything. It will often refer to the fact of being tricked or lied to.

One theory is that the expression refers to the Medieval practice of burning someone at the stake. It is said that the condemned would sometimes be already dead, in which case the executioner would try to hide this fact from the public, who would only see fire and thick smoke.

Another theory is that the expression references a strong blow to the head, which would leave a victim seeing strange colour and lights, represented by the fire. They would be dazed and struggle to distinguish or notice his/her surroundings.

Some also say that the expression derives from the idea of looking too long into the sun, which would also leave somebody momentarily dazed and unable to discern what is happening around them.

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