Ce n’est pas la mer à boire: A French expression you may hear today

To celebrate World Maritime Day, we explore three expressions inspired by the sea…

30 September 2021

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

Today (September 30) is World Maritime Day, which is celebrated each year on the last Thursday of September. It is an annual celebration of the maritime industry and in particular maritime safety, environment and shipping.

To mark the event, we look at some French idioms inspired by the sea, and explain their origins.

‘Ce n’est pas la mer à boire’ (literally ‘it’s not the sea to drink’) - A popular expression you are likely to come across. It means, ‘it is not a big deal’.

To drink a sea of water would be impossible. Thus, the expression aims to highlight that things could always be worse.

The phrase has its origins in French writer Jean de La Fontaine’s 1678 fable Les Deux Chiens et l'Âne Mort (The Two Dogs and the Dead Ass).

In the fable, the expression is actually used in the positive form ‘c’est la mer à boire’ but the expression evolved over time to the negative form. This positive form is no longer used.

‘Un serpent de mer’ - When the French talk about this, ‘a sea serpent’ - they are usually referring to a subject or information that is often repeated, especially in the media, rather than a literal beast in the sea.

The term was coined in the mid 19th century and is used mainly in reference to journalism.

Supposedly, the sea serpent was a mythical creature, which many claimed to have seen but whose existence could not be proved. Thus, it provided newspapers with an inexhaustible subject to write about. The expression is now used today to describe often-repeated debates and news stories.

‘Baisser pavillon’ - Another common expression, which means ‘to lower the flag’. The English equivalent would be ‘to strike the colours’.

This phrase has its origins in the 16th century, when lowering the flag on a ship was the universal sign of surrender.

However, it has now come to be used more broadly in the French language to mean ‘to abandon’ or ‘give up’.

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