Un vieux routier and other French ‘old’ expressions

The old bridge of Pont-sur-Yonne is due to receive a grant to go towards restoration works. We look at three French expressions with the word vieux

22 December 2021

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The old bridge of Pont-sur-Yonne (Yonne, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté) – known simply as le vieux pont – is to receive a €79,000 heritage lottery grant for restoration work which will start next year.

Work on the local landmark, which is a listed historic monument, will include removing vegetation that has been causing damage and adding a platform so visitors have 180-degree visibility of the Yonne river.

The €79,000 has come from this year’s Loto du Patrimoine, the Mission Patrimoine’s twice-yearly lottery, headed by presenter and journalist Stéphane Bern, which raises funds for the restoration of old buildings and sites of cultural and heritage value. The rest of the cost, estimated at around €400,000, will be financed by local councils and private donors. 

The vieux pont, built in the 17th century, was partially demolished during the Second World War, to stop the German advance, but it remains a focal point for the town. Part of the money will go towards lighting to set it off.

We look at three French expressions with the word vieux:

Un vieux routier (literally ‘an old lorry driver’): This expression describes someone who has plenty of experience in a field and is therefore very skilled in it. It can also refer to cunning and ‘knowing all the tricks of the trade’.

It dates from the Middle Ages, when routier defined not a lorry driver but ‘a wandering soldier who, in a band, engaged in looting’ (Trésor de la langue française).

It is said that a routier was known to be a cunning and experienced thief and the expression came to define somebody with long-experience and skill in their profession.

Ne pas faire de vieux os (literally ‘to not make old bones’): This expression means not to stay long in a particular place, and by extension to be tired.

Originally, it meant not to live long and was used as early as the 17th century, however, with time it came to mean to leave an event or place early or to be ready to leave.

Ce n'est pas à un vieux singe qu'on apprend à faire des grimaces (literally ‘you can’t teach an old monkey to make faces): This expression means that you cannot teach somebody with plenty of experience in a domain how to do something they already know.

The expression dates to the 19th century and draws on the image of the monkey, an intelligent animal known for making expressive faces – you cannot teach a monkey to do something it already knows how to do.

The image was used by French writer Honoré de Balzac in his 1838 novel Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (A Harlot High and Low) in the form of le vieux singe se connait en grimace (‘the old monkey knows how to make faces’).

A similar English expression would be ‘don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’.

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