Some hairy expressions in French

French has many fascinating terms and expressions linked to the word 'poil' (hair)

Ex-defence minister Gérard Longuet described some of the French workforce in a recent interview as having des poils dans la main. Having one or several hairs in your hand might sound an unusual expression: it means someone is lazy and work-shy.

In fact French has a lot of terms loosely related to hair. Tomber au poil (sometimes tomber pile or a combination of the two, pile poil) means something has happened just how it should, perfectly, at the right moment. Similarly there is à un poil près which one might translate as “by a whisker”.

Much like your facial expressions, the French language believes that your hair can also be indicative of your mood. You can be de bon poil if you’re feeling good or de mauvais poil if you got up on the wrong side of the bed. An old 16th century expression, changer de poil, means changing your attitude towards something.

If you are feeling down or weak but you find a way of snapping out of it, perking up and turning a negative situation into a positive one, you are said to reprendre du poil de la bête. This apparently comes from an old idea that grabbing hair from a dog that bit you would protect you from harm, and it’s where we English get the hangover expression “hair of the dog”.

A poil, naked, is borrowed from the equestrian world and comes from the 17th century term à même le poil, bareback horse riding.

If you flatter someone and agree with what they say, it is a case of caresser dans le sens du poil – like stroking a cat in the direction of their fur. Or, to rub someone up the wrong way, you could instead opt to do the opposite: prendre quelqu’un à rebrousse-poil.

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