Manger de la vache enragée and more French cow phrases

Cows are in the news after the Minister for Agriculture ordered an investigation into the practices of a slaughterhouse in central-eastern France. We look at four well-known French expressions related to cows…

29 October 2021

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

Minister for Agriculture Julien Denormandie has ordered an investigation into the practices of a slaughterhouse after claims of inhumane treatment of cattle and other animals.

It comes after a member of the animal rights group L214 infiltrated the abattoir Bigard in Cuiseaux, Saône-et-Loire by being hired as a ‘health officer’.

L214 released video footage from its member, and cited numerous breaches of regulations, which it says are leading to acute but avoidable suffering for the animals and particularly cattle.

With cows in the news, we look at four expressions related to cows:

Manger de la vache enragée (literally ‘to eat a rabid cow’):

This expression means to live in poverty or misery. It could also be translated as ‘to go through hard times’.

It was coined in the 18th century, when poor people would be forced to eat meat that had been discarded for hygiene or health reasons.

Nowadays, however, due to the association with rabies, some people assume the phrase means to be angry or frustrated so you may hear it used in this context, too.

Vachement (literally ‘cow-ly’):

This translates to ‘very’, and is used in a similar context to ‘bloody’ in British English. For example, ‘c’est vachement bon’ would mean ‘it’s bloody good’.

According to the Académie française, the term appeared in 1906, meaning ‘nastily’ or ‘maliciously’. Again, this is probably related to cows’ reputation as cruel and unpredictable.

By 1930, likely by extension of cows’ strong character, the meaning of ‘vachement’ shifted to ‘really’ or ‘absolutely’, which has remained to this day.

However, the term, ‘Oh la vache!’ is used to express admiration or surprise.

​​Le plancher des vaches (literally ‘the floor of cows’):

This expression is used to refer to dry land, particularly in contrast with the sea.

It is said that it was coined by sailors in the 16th century, who had very limited, if any, exposure to cows when out at sea. When they arrived on land, where there were plenty of cows, they called it le plancher aux vaches.

The phrase was notably used by Émile Zola in his 1877 novel, L’Assommoir.

It later became le plancher des vaches.

Être une peau de vache (literally ‘to be cowskin’):

The expression describes somebody who is unkind and harsh.

It appeared in the late 1800s and is most likely linked to cows’ tendency to kick their legs out unexpectedly.

However, another theory is that the phrase derives from the German expression, ‘Das geht auf keine Kuhhaut!’, which translates to ‘it doesn’t fit on a cowhide’. At the time, cowhides were used to write on so to not fit on a cowhide had the same figurative meaning as ‘to cross the line’.

Cowskin, over time, came to designate somebody cruel.

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