Découvrir le pot aux roses: A French expression you may hear today

Reports of a secret meeting between France and Israel have arisen in relation to Israeli spyware. We look at what this has to do with ‘discovering the pot of roses’...

25 October 2021

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

As it emerges that Israel and France have held a secret meeting to discuss investigations into espionage committed by numerous governments, we explore a French expression about discovering secrets... 

Project Pegasus, an investigative journalism initiative, has revealed espionage on multiple prominent individuals by countries including Morocco, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Pegasus is military-grade spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO Group that infiltrates mobile phones and, among other features, allows operators access to text messages, photos and emails.

The NSO Group said that the software had been leased to various governments for use against criminals and terrorists.

However, it was reported that several world leaders were targeted by the software, including President Emmanuel Macron in 2019. Journalists, human rights activists, and other influential figures were also targeted.

Now, it has been reported that Israeli Prime Minister’s security advisor, Eyal Hulata, secretly met with President Macron’s diplomatic advisor, Emmanuel Bonne, this month in Paris, in a bid to ease tensions which arose from the scandal.

A French expression that means to discover a secret is ‘découvrir le pot aux roses’ (literally ‘to discover the pot of roses’). We look at the origins of the phrase.

Most sources date this expression to the 13th century, although linguists have suggested various theories.

One is that in the Middle Ages, women would hide letters and gifts from lovers in flowerpots. When these were found, the secret relationship was discovered.

It has also been theorised that the expression relates to perfume. 

Here, the verb ‘discover’ would not mean ‘to find’ but literally ‘to un-cover’ or ‘to take the lid off’. When women would remove the lid of the container containing rose water, which they used as perfume, they would reveal the secret to their attractive scent.
Others claim that the ‘pot aux roses’ referred to makeup rather than perfume. Men would lift the lid and discover the secret of women’s beauty.

According to the dictionary Merriam-Webster, in ancient mythology, Cupid, the god of love, gave a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, secrets and confidentiality, in order to convince him to keep a secret. 

It is said that Romans decorated their party halls with roses to remind guests that what happens at the party stays ‘sub rosa’ (literally ‘under the rose’) – a secret.

It is therefore also a possibility that the French expression ‘découvrir le pot aux roses’ was inspired by the Latin phrase ‘sub rosa’.

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