Ours mal léché: a French expression you may hear today

Following a bear attack in the Pyrenees this weekend, we look at two expressions related to bears

22 November 2021

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

A hunter shot and killed a brown bear this weekend in Ariège after it attacked him, causing severe injury to his leg.

The 70-year-old was hunting boar when the female bear attacked him. He shot at the animal twice, killing it instantly.

The hunter was airlifted to hospital with serious damage to the arteries in his leg.

The incident is being investigated by police and is likely to reignite the debate about the reintroduction of brown bears to the Pyrenees - a project started in the 1990s after numbers started to plummet - and which has caused repeated upset among farmers.

We look at two French expressions inspired by bears:

Ours mal léché (literally ‘badly licked bear’):

This expression describes somebody who is antisocial, irritable or ill-mannered.

It was coined in the 17th century, when it was believed that bear mothers would lick their cubs for many hours in order to clean them, shape them and have them be accepted by other bears.

At the time, it was used to refer to somebody with physical deformities, as a bear that was ‘badly licked’ would have been thought to be not in the correct physical shape.

By extension, this meant that they were not ready to enter and settle into society, and the expression evolved in the 18th century to designate somebody who has poor social skills or is constantly grumpy - a social deformity of sorts.

Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué (literally ‘to sell a bear’s skin before having killed it’):

This expression means to celebrate or take advantage of something which has not yet happened or which is not certain to take place. 

The English equivalent would be 'don't count your chickens before they hatch.'

In the middle ages, bear skin was a popular material to make blankets. The current expression was used in the form vendre la peau avant qu’on ait la bête (‘to sell the skin before one has the beast’).

It was popularised by writer Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century in his fable L’ours et les deux compagnons (The Bear and the Two Companions), in which two friends sell the skin of a bear that they have not yet killed, but plan to. 

However, when they go to kill the bear, they are unable to and while one of them lays on the ground pretending to be dead, the bear whispers a moral in his ear: Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l'ours avant qu'on ne l'ait mis à terre (‘one must never sell the skin of a bear they haven’t put down yet’).

The phrase has evolved slightly over time, and you are now likely to hear vendre le peau de l’ours said on its own.

Related articles: 

Être le dindon de la farce and other French poultry expressions
Des yeux de merlan frit and other French fish phrases
Manger de la vache enragée and more French cow phrases

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