Des yeux de merlan frit and other French fish phrases

Fish are in the news following difficult talks between France and the UK regarding fishing licences. We look at three fish-related French expressions 

5 November 2021

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

UK and French representatives met yesterday (November 4) to discuss fishing licences, which have been causing tension between the two countries.

While the French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune described the talks with Britain’s Brexit Minister Lord David Frost as “useful and positive”, he also acknowledged that “there is still a lot of work to be done and there are significant differences in position”.

Further talks should take place next week.

The Brexit deal states that both UK and EU boats will be granted licences to fish in each other’s waters if they can prove that they had been fishing there between February 2017 and January 2020.

However, there have been disputes over how much evidence is needed to prove this, which has led to the UK and Jersey denying licences to dozens of French boats and France seizing a British trawler, as well as making various threats of retaliation.

Here, we look at three French expressions related to fish:

Faire des yeux de merlan frit (literally ‘to make fried whiting eyes’):

This expression refers to a look exchanged between lovers – completely enamoured and, to onlookers, a bit ridiculous.

Initially, this expression was used in the 18th century in the form of faire des yeux de carpe frite, meaning ‘make fried carp eyes’. 

Presumably, it was inspired by the open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression we see on fried fish.

Silent cinema in the 20th century gave the expression much of its meaning, as actors would have to really exaggerate their facial expressions to convey emotions.

Engueuler quelqu'un comme du poisson pourri (literally ‘to shout at someone like a rotten fish’):

This expression means to shout at someone, usually hurling insults.

It is said to date to the 20th century and be inspired by fish merchants who had a reputation for being loud and aggressive.

It could also relate to the fact that rotten fish have no value for merchants and would be thrown away. Therefore, to ‘shout at someone like a rotten fish’ would mean to give them as little consideration as one would a rotten fish.

Il y a anguille sous roche (literally ‘there is an eel under the rock’):

This expression means that something suspicious is going on. The English equivalent might be ‘I smell a rat’.

It is said to have been coined in the Middle Ages.

Eels, which avoid light and spend much of their time during the day in the shade of rocks, are assimilated to snakes. Both animals are associated with cunningness and deception.

Furthermore, the position of the eel in this expression – under the rock – indicates something hidden.

The ‘anguille’ also alludes to the verb ‘guiller’, which in Old French meant to deceive or trick.

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