Être le dindon de la farce and other French poultry expressions

France has ordered a poultry lockdown. We look at three French phrases inspired by domesticated birds.

8 November 2021

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

The French agriculture ministry has ordered an immediate lockdown of free-range poultry due to the spread of bird flu across Europe, with the risk level being raised to ‘high’ in mainland France.

The decree came into effect on Friday November 5.

Since summer, 130 cases or outbreaks of bird flu have been identified across Europe, including some non-professional poultry farms in France, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Farmers must now shelter their poultry indoors or at least provide a net to prohibit contact with migratory birds who may be carrying the contagious influenza.

The government is trying to avoid a repeat of last year, when bird flu spread rapidly and widely across France.

However, some farmers are arguing that it is not ethical to confine the animals and misleading to consumers, who believe that the birds are kept in free-range conditions.

Read more: Risk of bird flu rises to high in France, poultry must be kept inside

We look at three French expressions related to poultry:

Être le dindon de la farce (literally ‘to be the turkey of the prank’):

This expression means to be the butt of the joke or subject of a prank.

It is said to have originated in the 18th century, with the ‘ballet des dindons’ - a form of fairground entertainment in Paris where turkeys were locked in a cage whose metal floor was gradually heated, causing them to ‘dance’ in pain, making the audience laugh.

The event was banned in 1844 but the expression remains commonly used to identify someone whose misfortunes, whether serious or not, others laugh at.

Quand les poules auront des dents (literally ‘when hens have teeth’):

This expression is used to refer to something that will never happen.

This phrase derives from another expression with the same meaning used in the 19th century - quand les poules pisseront (literally ‘when hens pee’). As hens don’t have a bladder, they don’t pass urine as we know it.

Equally, hens do not have teeth, so to do something ‘when hens have teeth’ means to never do it.

Various countries and languages have their own variations of this expression. For example, the English equivalent is ‘when pigs fly’.

Être une poule mouillée (literally ‘ to be a wet hen’):

To call somebody a wet hen is to call them a coward.

According to Pierre-Marie Quitard’s 1842 Dictionnaire des proverbes (Dictionary of Proverbs), a chicken that gets wet from the rain ‘just stands in the background, without moving, as if ashamed or dejected’ - an image which inspired the phrase we hear today.

The expression has been around since the 17th century.

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