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Language notes: It’s a dog’s life

Canine catchphrases for everyday French

Le Parisien recently reported that Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron’s black labrador, Nemo, receives an enormous amount of mail and gifts from admiring fans. Hardly a usual dog’s life (une vie de chien) at the Elysée Palace for the pampered presidential pooch...

Many phrases such as ‘comme un chien’, (like a dog) with their negative connotations, date from the 17th century in France, when dogs were workers or guards. Even today, bad weather is still described as ‘temps de chien’, just as ‘mourir comme un chien’ means to die miserably, or in penury.

If someone is in a bad mood, they are said to have ‘humeur de chien’(a dog’s mood) while if you are having trouble doing something, you have ‘avoir un mal de chien’; and if a job is thankless, it is ‘un métier de chien’. Note, however, that the French never say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ – they have plenty of other ways of describing heavy rain!

Les chiens aboient et la caravane passe’, which is translated literally as ‘The dogs bark and the caravan passes by’ is an elegant way describing a person so sure of his or her choices or viewpoint that no criticism will make them back down.

Its origin is in an Arab proverb used to describe the impassive behaviour of camels passing a nomadic camp, despite provocation from angry dogs.

The phrase ‘Les chiens ne font pas des chats’ (Dogs do not make cats) implies that dogs could never give birth to cats, ie. we inherit the characteristics and traits of our parents. ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ would perhaps be the closest English version.

It is not all bad public image for man’s best friend, however. The last word goes to beatnik Honfleur composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), who proclaimed: “The more I know man, the more I admire dogs.”

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