Mettre sa main au feu and more French fire phrases

A man who accidentally started a huge fire when he threw a cigarette butt into shrubland in 2016 has just received a prison sentence. We look at three French expressions related to fire

17 November 2021

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

A bricklayer was sentenced to five years in prison (four suspended) yesterday (November 16) for unintentionally starting a fire by throwing a cigarette butt into dry shrubland near Marseille. The fire ravaged over 2,500 hectares of land and damaged over 100 homes.

40 year-old Mostafa El Fathi said he thought the butt was extinguished when he threw it in August 2016. He told the court that he had tried to extinguish the fire which resulted with a hose but it was spreading too quickly, so he ran away in a panic.

The fire was reportedly the fifth largest in the Bouches-du-Rhône region since 1973 and the damages it caused amounted to nearly €63million.

Four of the five years handed to Mr El Fathi will be suspended and one year will be spent on house arrest.

We look at three French expressions related to fire:

Mettre sa main au feu (literally ‘to put your hand in the fire’):

This expression means to be sure of something.

It originated in the Middle Ages when people accused of crimes were subjected to ‘trials by ordeal’ - painful ‘tests’ in which the results were thought to be the ‘judgement of God’ and therefore a sure way to determine a person’s guilt or innocence.

One such ordeal was trial by fire in which an accused would have to put his or her hand in fire or seize a red-hot iron. If the hand healed quickly, it would mean that the accused had told the truth.

Now, when somebody is very sure that what they are saying is correct, they say that they would put their hand into fire to prove it, certain that if this were the trial by fire, theirs would heal quickly.

Mettre le feu aux poudres (literally ‘to put fire into the powder’):

This expression means to trigger a violent reaction or aggravate a situation. An English equivalent might be ‘to add fuel to the fire’.

It derives from an older expression coined by the navy in the 16th century - mettre le feu aux étoupes. It translated to ‘to set fire to oakum’, which was used to make fuses for weapons, and meant to arouse anger.

In the 18th century, the oakum was replaced by (gun)powder in the expression.

The image is therefore of lighting the fuse of a powder keg and watching it ‘get angry’ and explode.

It is said that in the 18th century, the phrase also took on an erotic connotation but it has mostly lost that aspect, and is nowadays used mainly used to illustrate the act of provoking someone to get angry.

Tirer les marrons du feu (literally ‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire’):

This expression means to profit from or reap the benefits of something at someone else’s expense.

It was popularised in writer Jean de La Fontaine’s fable Le Singe et le Chat (The Monkey and the Cat), published in the second half of the 17th century.  In the fable, the monkey convinces the cat to take roasting chestnuts out of a fire, with the cat hurting his paw but the monkey himself remaining unharmed in the process.

The original expression was tirer les marrons du feu avec la patte du chat (‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire using the cat’s paw’), accusing the subject of the expression of a level of opportunism.

Although the expression was abbreviated to simply ‘pull chestnuts out of the fire’, it still often implies benefiting from something at somebody else’s expense.

Related articles

Tourner en eau de boudin: a French expression you may hear today

Courir ventre à terre and other French Earth-related expressions

Sous une chape de plomb and other lead-related French expressions

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
Brexit and Beyond for Britons in France*
Featured Help Guide
What the Brexit deal means for UK residents of France, second homeowners and visitors in 2021 and after
Get news, views and information from France
You have 2 free subscriber articles left
Subscribe now to read unlimited articles and exclusive content
Already a subscriber? Log in now