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Être aux abois: A French expression to describe facing difficulties

The term was recently used by a French presidential candidate to accuse President Emmanuel Macron of being ‘desperate’

Être aux abois is a phrase with many connotations Pic: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock

Should you ever need to express to someone that you are in dire straits – which, of course, we hope is never the case – or you wish to describe someone who is really up against it, in a whole heap of bother from which there seems little hope of escape, there is a very useful French expression to employ: être aux abois.

It was used by French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse this week (March 16) to accuse President Emmanuel Macron of being “desperate” by considering autonomy for Corsica after violent protests there. 

She said, “En Corse, on a un président aux abois qui cède face à la violence”. 

Read more: Why are there angry protests against the French state in Corsica?

The origin of the phrase, like so many in the French language, lies in the vocabulary of rural affairs – in this case, hunting. 

Prior to the 15th century, être aux abois referred to the last-ditch, desperate situation of a beast such as a stag or wild boar, encircled by the baying pack of hounds after a hunt. The animal was deemed to be facing les abois – the barks of the hounds.

However, by the end of that century, the phrase être aux abois had gone beyond the hunting world to signify anybody who found themselves “being reduced to the last extremity”. 

According to Trésor de la langue française – the whopping 16-volume dictionary of 19th- and 20th-century French, published by the Centre de Recherche pour un Trésor de la Langue Française from 1971 to 1994, and now available online the phrase assumed a certain literary cachet. It “took on a literary value that stems from the noble character of the language of hunting”.

One specific usage of être aux abois is when describing someone who finds themselves in severe financial difficulties, a state for which the French language has other bespoke phrases. 

Être dans la dèche is a good one, whose origins lie in gambling argot – la dèche meant monetary losses (possibly from the verb déchoir, meaning to fall from grandeur). Later it became a slang phrase used by materially deprived prisoners.

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