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‘A la Saint-Glinglin’: Our French expression of the week

This phrase is useful for people who tend to procrastinate or make empty promises

We look at a French expression which in English would translate to ‘when pigs fly’ Pic: ntkris / Shutterstock

This week we are looking at a French phrase which can be used in any context and which refers to an eventuality which will never realistically happen. 

France’s Catholic heritage means that every day of the year is associated with one saint or another – with some being better known than others – but one such saint appears to nestle in the gaps between days, never being pinned down to one in particular. 

La Saint-Glinglin’ is a fictitious day which is used to refer to a distant, even impossible event, which in English might happen ‘when pigs fly’. 

So, if you tell someone that you are going to do something ‘à la Saint-Glinglin’ you are pushing it back to a date that does not exist, and will never fulfil your promise.

However, if the person you are talking to does not know about the expression, they might believe that they can expect the task to be completed at some point in the near future. 

Saint-Glinglin is derived from the words ‘seing glin’, seing meaning ‘sign’ and glin referring to the sound of clocks indicating that a certain time has come. 

It is thought that in this case, the clocks would be signalling the arrival of the Apocalypse, rather than the everyday passing of time. 

In French, one might also say: ‘renvoyer aux calendes grecques’ (to postpone something indefinitely) ‘quand les poules auront les dents’ (literally: when chickens have teeth) or ‘à la semaine des quatre jeudis’ (literally: on a week with four Thursdays) or ‘au 30 février’ (on February 30).

Some historical French legal documents reportedly make reference to Saint-Glinglin, for example, when someone taking out a loan promised to repay the sum ‘à la Saint-Glinglin’. 

The lender supposedly took the borrower to court, which ruled that they pay on Toussaint (All Saints’ Day), which – as the name suggests – celebrates all saints, known and unknown. 

It is not known if this tale relates to real events, or whether it is just a story.

Although fictitious, Saint-Glinglin is actually celebrated in Prenay (Loir-et-Cher) on the last Saturday in August. 

On this day, a straw doll representing Saint Glinglin is paraded through the village on a cart and then burnt on a bonfire.

Related articles 

‘Montrer patte blanche’: French fairytale phrase for trustworthiness

‘Déçu en bien’: how to use this ironic French phrase about praise

‘Un temps de Toussaint’: Our French expression of the week

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