Prendre son bâton de pèlerin: A French expression you may hear today

The leader of one of France’s main workers’ unions is said to have ‘taken his pilgrim’s cane’ with regards to shortening the working week from 35 to 32 hours. We look at what this means…

18 October 2021

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

One of the main French workers’ unions, the CGT, has relaunched its campaign for a 32-hour working week.

The union’s secretary general Philippe Martinez made his case at a recent press conference where he argued that changing the legislation from 35 to 32 hours would create over two million jobs.

This awareness campaign was originally launched in 2016 but the idea has been gaining popularity and supporters, including with France Insoumise (Left) leader and 2022 presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

It has been reported that Mr Martinez ‘prend son bâton de pèlerin’.

We look at this and the origins of another French expression which uses the word ‘bâton’:

Prendre son bâton de pèlerin’ (literally ‘to take your pilgrim’s cane’):

This means to continue with a mission or take on a difficult task.

It is theorised that the word ‘bâton’ derived from the Low Latin ‘burdo’, meaning ‘mule’. Pilgrims often travelled on mules or donkeys so it is possible that the name of the animal that transported them carried over to the object that supported them while walking and allowed them to continue the journey.

Another theory is that ‘bâton’ comes from the word ‘bastun’, which was used around the 12th century to designate a long piece of wood used to hit or move something, according to the dictionary Trésor de la langue française.

This would explain why the cane is used to symbolise a mission or campaign - it is something the bearer of the cane is ready to fight for.

Discuter à bâtons rompus’ (literally ‘to discuss with broken sticks’):

This expression implies a disorganised, incoherent conversation that changes topic often and is generally believed to have originated in the military music of the Middle Ages.

It is said that, while playing a marching rhythm on the drums, the player would make two consecutive strokes with each drumstick, producing different sounds which did not complement each other.

This expression eventually began to be used with regards to conversation, in particular one that switches between topics that have seemingly nothing to do with each other.

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