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Avoir la gueule enfarinée and more French ‘gobby’ phrases you may hear

Lille’s Natural History Museum is said to be starting to ‘have some animal mouth’ after recent renovations. We look at five expressions with the word gueule.

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

The first phase of the expansion of the Natural History Museum of Lille has finished, with plans already in place for the second phase to start in 2023.

The renovations, which started in May 2020, included the construction of a new reception hall, cafeteria and boutique. Since its reopening in May this year, the museum has had record visitors, said director Judith Pargamin.

The second phase of the renovations, which aims to double the exhibition space from 1500m2 to 3000m2, is set to last for a period of 22 months, with the premises due to close for almost two years.

It has been reported that the museum is starting to avoir de la gueule (literally ‘to have some animal mouth’). The expression dates back to at least the early 20th century and means to look good or appealing.

Gueule is the French word for an animal’s mouth but it is used in a colloquial and somewhat offensive manner to refer to human mouths. In English, a similar word would be ‘gob’.

We look at five more expressions with the word ‘animal mouth’: 

Avoir la gueule enfarinée (literally ‘to have your animal mouth coated in flour’):

This expression means to be silly or naive.

Its origins lie in writer Jean de La Fontaine’s 1668 fable Le chat et un vieux rat (The Cat and an Old Rat), where a cat tries to catch a rat by covering itself in flour to make it less visible. However, the rat is old and experienced and doesn’t fall for the cat’s ruse.

While originally the expression suggested blind trust and naivety, nowadays it is often also used to mean silly or ditsy.

Avoir une gueule d’empeigne (literally ‘to have a vamp animal mouth’):

This expression means to have an ugly face or, by extension, to be unpleasant.

The empeigne, or ‘vamp’, refers to the upper front part of a shoe. As shoes would often get dirty and the vamp would often be made of leather – animal skin – the empeigne came to have negative connotations which extended to mean ugly or unpleasant.

The expression dates back to the 19th century.

Avoir la gueule de raie (literally ‘to have the animal mouth of a stingray’):

This expression is used as an insult to say that someone is ugly.

One theory is that originally, somebody with a flat face would be said to have a gueule de raie as stingrays are notoriously flat creatures and by extension, it came to mean ugly.

However, another theory is that the expression was inspired by a type of knot used in the navy called noeud de gueule de raie. The English equivalent is ‘cat’s paw knot’. By comparing someone’s face to a knot, one implies that it is ugly.

The expression has been around since the early 20th century.

Avoir la gueule de bois (literally ‘to have an animal mouth of wood’):

This expression means to be hungover.

It compares the feeling we have in our mouth and throat the morning after drinking alcohol to the feel of wood, which tends to be harsh and dry.

Read more: ‘Une volée de bois vert’ and three other French phrases about trees

Ta gueule! (literally ‘your animal mouth!’):

This expression means ‘shut your mouth’.

The derogatory phrase in its entirety is ferme ta gueule (‘close your animal mouth’) but it is often shortened to simply ta gueule.

The comparison of somebody’s mouth with that of an animal adds a level of insult to the term, which is only used colloquially.

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