Translated literally mettre un bemol means ‘to add a flat to a musical note’, that is to lower the note slightly, and by extension to ‘put a dampener’ on something or ‘play it down’.
This is what Health Minister Olivier Véran tried to do yesterday (August 23) in response to research from l’Institut Pasteur suggesting that France’s fourth wave of Covid-19 may reach its peak in the next few days and then start to decrease.
Mr Véran said this could mean that hospitals in France would have successfully avoided the crowded and difficult conditions seen during earlier waves of the virus.
But he was quick to mettre un bémol on the idea that the fourth wave was definitely over.
As students return to school and large numbers of holidaymakers will travel between regions in France in the coming days, he said: “We have to be extremely vigilant”.
The expression mettre un bémol has musical origins, as the word bémol means ‘flat’ as in lowering the pitch by one semitone.
The musical symbol for a flat note is a stylised b, referencing the first letter of the Italian word bemolle.
In this sense asking a musician to mettre un bémol means suggesting they should play a note one semitone lower.
In common usage, mettre un bémol has evolved to mean to tone something down, or to be cautious about something.
While the health minister tried to do this yesterday, he did also offer some cautious optimism.
Due to the impact of vaccination, the health pass and Covid-19 testing measures, he said that people in France could “look ahead with less worry” than at the beginning of summer.