L'échapper belle and more French ‘escape’ expressions

A deer, which is the mascot of a commune in Pas-de-Calais, has escaped its enclosure. We look at three French expressions related to escaping…

16 December 2021

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

A search is underway for a deer, made the mascot of a commune in Hauts-de-France, which escaped its enclosure on Monday (December 13).

The deer, named Apollon, is roaming wild but was spotted on Tuesday near the place where it was found and cared for last year before being adopted by a local family.

The town of Lespesses invites anyone who sees it to contact either its owners (on 06 22 87 45 88) or mayor Arnaud Picque (on ​​06 17 62 98 18) directly.

Since the news of the escape, the town’s Facebook post has been viewed over 50,000 times and shared by over 1,000 users.

We look at three French expressions which mean ‘to escape’:

L'échapper belle (literally ‘to escape beautiful[ly]’):

This expression means to escape by the skin of one’s teeth.

It has its origins in the game of ‘real tennis’, jeu de paume, a precursor to tennis in which players would hit a ball with the palm of their hands.

In the 15th century, it would be said qui belle l'eschappa when a player missed a ball that they could have hit. The ‘l’ in the expression represented the balle (ball), hence the feminine form of the adjective beau, which at the time meant ‘well’ or ‘good’.

Now, the expression is fixed as l’échapper belle, a form it took in the 17th century, and means to narrowly escape something.

Prendre la clé des champs (literally ‘to take the key to the fields’):

This expression also means ‘to escape’ and dates to the Middle Ages. The fields signify a vast empty space and therefore represent freedom and independence.

To take the key to the fields therefore meant to open the doors to freedom – to escape captivity or restriction.

Se faire la malle (literally ‘to do the trunk’):

The malle – a leather trunk, ancestor of the suitcase – is what people in the 20th century would use to pack their belongings when going on holiday.

The expression se faire la malle was coined in prisons in the 1930s to refer to prisoners escaping.

Nowadays, it refers to any kind of escape.

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