Le torchon brûle: A French expression you may hear today

With tensions rising between Paris and London, you may hear that the ‘tea towel is burning’ between the two cities. We look at the origins of the phrase

10 September 2021

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

On Monday (September 6), 785 migrants successfully made their way across the Channel from France to the UK. 

With the number of illegal crossings hitting a record high this summer, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and French Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss their joint approach. 

Accusations  –  including of complacency, breaking international law and financial blackmail – have been made from both sides of La Manche, putting a strain on our ‘friendship’, as referred to by Mr Darmanin.

It has been reported that le torchon brûle – the tea towel is burning –  between Paris and London. But what does this expression mean, and where does it come from?

The term is used when a disagreement or dispute emerges and it would be best translated as ‘tensions are rising’. 

To understand where it comes from, we need to look at both parts of the expression. In fact, it had nothing to do with tea towels originally.

Various sources, including the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, state that ‘torchon’ used to mean ‘torch’, an object naturally linked to burning (in its original sense of a flaming torch rather than a battery-powered one..).

However, others claim that in the 12th century the noun used to mean a ‘violent blow’. 

Hence, during a fight, when somebody had taken many hits and been defeated, it would be said that they had received many torchons (blows).

It is probably also linked to the verb torcher, which used to mean ‘to fight’ according to Le Trésor de la Langue Française.
As for brûler, in this expression it refers to the fact that a serious dispute is approaching, or about fully to break out.

In French slang brûler can mean ‘to get close’.

One common example relates to children’s games. 

In France, when children play hide-and-seek, or games where an object is hidden and has to be found, they shout “tu brûles” (you are burning) when someone is getting close to finding the hidden person or object, just as “you’re getting warmer” is sometimes used in English.

Over centuries, the two words have come to form the expression we hear today.

French feminists from Le Mouvement de Libération des Femmes used to publish a newspaper called Le Torchon Brûle in the 1970s.

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