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Bouillon, soupçon: Two French culinary terms with other meanings

French food terms are often used in expressions that have nothing to do with eating as these two words show 

Bouillon and soupçon sometimes can refer to things not related to food Pic: Just dance / Shutterstock

For those with even the slightest soupçon of knowledge of France’s culinary arts, the word ‘bouillon’ is surely familiar, used to refer to ‘stock’ (meat or vegetable) as a base for sauce or soups. However, back in the day, seasoned old hacks of the French press were familiar with a very different appropriation of the word.

Le bouillon was used to refer to left over copies of newspapers – ie. those unsold (The Connexion is not familiar with this scenario, bien sûr). Figuratively, it was used to describe a publication going through a rough patch: “prendre un bouillon”, or “aller au bouillon”, meant that the newspaper was in financial difficulties. 

The phrase prendre le bouillon is also used to describe the act of swallowing water (such as when swimming, or a child in the bath), while prendre un bouillon d’onze heures in the late 18th century referred to someone being poisoned (11pm being the witching hour!).

As for soupçon, it has nothing to do with soup (la soupe). In English we tend to use it to refer to a slight but appreciable bit, a smidgeon. However, in French while it can also refer to ‘a small amount’, it is more commonly employed with reference to its original Latin: to describe suspicion (it derives from the Latin suspicere, to suspect). 

According to Larousse, it describes an “unfavourable opinion of someone, of their behaviour, based on clues, impressions, intuitions, but without precise proof .” 

It also applies to doubts one might have about the authenticity of something or someone’s sincerity (“J’ai des soupçons sur sa sincérité” – I doubt his sincerity), a vague idea or pure conjecture.

On the contrary, if someone is deemed beyond reproach, in French they are “au-dessus de tout soupçon”.

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