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The grim origins of French PM's "sorti de l'auberge" phrase

There are two possible etymologies for the expression ‘on n'est pas encore sorti de l'auberge’ - and one involves an alleged mass murder and cannibalism

Prime Minister Jean Castex said during an interview on streaming platform Twitch on March 14 that, “on n'est pas encore sorti de l'auberge”. 

The English equivalent is something like “we are not out of the woods yet”, to mean we are still in a difficult situation. The prime minister was referring to France’s ongoing efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It is a common expression in French but where does it come from and is it based on a real auberge? 

First, we look at the literal meaning of the phrase and, translated word for word, it means “we have not yet left the hostel”. 

In the 15th century, the word - then in the form “aulberge” - defined a rough camp or a hut. It came from a West Germanic word to describe a place where an army would lodge, according to digital media website O'Parleur.

This evolved over time and by the 17th century it had taken on its more modern meaning to define a gîte or some other form of accommodation. Today, the French word for a youth hostel is auberge de jeunesse.

Why then, is an “auberge” likened to a difficult situation that people cannot get out of?

There are two popular etymologies and one of them involves the brutal tale of mass murder and cannibalism.

The Red Inn

In the 1830s, a corpse was found by a river near an inn named l’Auberge de Peyrebeille in Ardèche. 

The inn was run by couple Pierre and Marie Martin, who were accused of murdering the man, thought to be a customer.

During the subsequent trial, witnesses came forward to claim that the couple were responsible for up to 50 other murders at the inn and of rape and cannibalism.

Rumours went around that the Martins would serve their victims meals containing the cooked body parts of previous victims. 

The couple were convicted and put to death by guillotine in front of the inn, along with their employee, Jean Rochette. 

Since then, scholars have raised doubts about the fairness of the trial and the claims against the couple. 

Their inn came to be known as the Red Inn and it quickly became a part of popular folklore. Songs, plays and stories were written about it, describing how once clients went into the auberge, they never came out again. Hence the expression on n'est pas encore sorti de l'auberge, to mean being stuck in a bad situation. 

The trouble with this explanation is that the expression actually existed before the events at the Red Inn, O'Parleur points out. 

The website offers an alternative explanation.

It states that in the 19th century, the word auberge was slang for a prison. Criminals might refer to their “stay” in jail as being put up in a hostel (auberge). However, unlike a normal hostel, it was much harder to get out. 

It is possible that the expression actually came about because of the slang reference to prisons but was then further popularised after the Red Inn events. 

In any case, it seems that the innocent expression employed by Mr Castex began life in surprisingly grim circumstances.

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