Candles to frogs: church influences

1 November 2015
By Connexion Journalist

FRANCE is known as ‘the eldest daughter of the church’ because its formerly heathen kings were the first to be baptised (from Clovis in 496) – and it is a traditionally Catholic country despite its modern emphasis on laïcité.

Many everyday French expressions stem from religious life, often dating back to the monasteries of the Middle Ages. Here are some examples:

Faire les 100 pas – to walk up and down in boredom or impatience while waiting. It is thought to have originated with monks walking round their square cloisters in prayer – each side was roughly 25 paces long.

Avoir droit au chapitre (‘to have right at the chapter’) – to have a right to be consulted. It was originally voix, avoice/vote at meetings of a ‘chapter’ of senior monks about issues concerning the community.

Une grenouille de bénitier (‘a holy water bowl frog’) – refers to containers at the entrance of  churches to cross yourself with. It means a person who attends church regularly.

 Devoir une fière chandelle à quelqu’un(‘to owe someone a proud candle’) – to be very grateful towards someone. It refers to lighting a candle to thank God or a saint. Fière (proud) here means  ‘fine’.

 C’est la croix et la bannière(‘it’s the cross and banner’) – meaning something is very difficult. Organising processions for religious festivals, which would include people carrying banners, preceded by someone carrying a cross, used to be complicated due to formalities such as placing participants in the parade according to rank.

 Une querelle de clocher (‘a bell tower quarrel’) is a dispute over some local, probably quite insignificant, matter, referring to the fact that bell towers were the focal point of villages.

 Ne plus savoir à quel saint se vouer (‘to not know to which saint to appeal’) refers to being at a loss for someone to help.

 Etre mis à l’index (‘to be placed on the index’) is to be rejected or excluded. It comes from the Index of Forbidden Books, which Catholics were advised not to read because they were, for example, considered blasphemous or obscene. It was used between 1559 and 1961 and included such well-known names as Montaigne, Voltaire and Balzac. The last book placed on it was a Life of Jesus by the vicar of Notre-Dame, examining historical evidence for the gospel accounts.

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