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Rester bouche bée: Our French expression of the week

After one lucky woman obtained millions for a vase she thought was worth €2,000 we look at expressions for extreme surprise

One seller was left bouche bée after the item she thought was worth €2,000 sold for over €9million at an auction Pic: ART STOCK CREATIVE / Shutterstock

According to the auctioneer who presided over the sale, a woman whose Chinese vase sold for €7.7million (€9million with costs) this weekend a été abasourdie par la nouvelle – she was absolutely stunned by the news.

It was hardly surprising, seeing that French experts, before the bidding went wild with competition among Chinese buyers, had thought it to be worth about €2,000.

Read more: Chinese vase valued at €2,000 sells at €9million in French auction 

You might in fact say, elle en est restée bouche bée – another colourful way to say that she was astonished by it.

Rester bouche bée comes from a very old French verb béer of which bée is the past participle.

Nothing to do with alcoholic refreshment (or insects that make honey), béer literally means ‘to be widely open’, so the expression suggests someone with their mouth open in surprise, as used in social media emoticons for a reaction of surprise.

It is linked to the more common modern French word béant, an adjective which also means ‘gaping open’, and the verb bâiller, meaning to yawn.

Abasourdir, meanwhile, has a complicated history, influenced by words with meanings including to kill, stun or to deafen by a loud noise.

According to the Trésor de la langue française etymological dictionary it brings to mind ideas such as someone being bashed over the head and “it implies certain physical consequences and, especially, a characteristic facial expression with round eyes and open mouth”.

Here are some other ways you might express a similar idea:

Etre sidéré/e – this means to be stupefied and derives from a Latin expression meaning to be under a negative influence from the stars, in an astrological sense. It comes from sideris (star).

Tomber à la renverse or (less politely) sur le cul – literally, to fall over backwards or onto your bum.

Les bras m’en tombent – ‘My arms are falling (off)’. The related image is of someone who was carrying out some task when an astonishing thing happens which makes them physically incapable of continuing.

As well as to express astonishment, this phrase can also be used to refer to a situation with which you feel totally fed up or exasperated and therefore incapable of raising the strength to do anything about.

En rester sans voix – literally, to remain speechless due to something

En rester baba – this probably comes from being so astonished that you cannot pronounce anything sensible so just make a babbling noise

Etre estomaqué/e – from a verb literally meaning to receive a punch to the stomach or be knocked breathless

Read more

Se serrer la ceinture: Our French expression of the week

Four boozy French phrases to describe having drunk too much

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