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‘It’s duck cold’ – and other idioms

French has a lot of colourful expressions – here we look at a few of them and their origins

3 November 2014

MOST LANGUAGES have a variety of colourful idioms – typical phrases that might not mean much if you take them literally – and French is no exception.

A couple of well-known ones, which have equally idiomatic English equivalents are:

Quand les poules auront les dents (pigs might fly) and on ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre (you can’t have your cake and eat it).

Here are some others, with their explanations:

Il fait un froid de canard - It’s freezing. Thought to come from hunting – as the hunter has to stand very still to let the duck come within range, and in winter time he or she gets chilled by the cold.

Une poule mouillée – A coward. From the dejected, “ashamed” look of a wet, bedraggled chicken in the rain.

Manger son pain blanc [en premier] – To be happy, or to have an easy start in something, but with a risk of worse, more difficult times to come. From the days when white bread was a luxury and a sign of prosperity. Refers to eating the refined white bread first and then eating the coarser, darker kind afterwards.

Revenons à nos moutons – Let’s get back to the point. Said to come from a 15th century play, la farce de Maître Pathelin, by an unknown author. The title character tries to mislead a judge in a trial by bringing two cases before him, one about sheep and one about sheets. When the judge becomes confused he repeatedly says “let’s get back to our sheep”, since when it has become a stock phrase.

A la Saint-Glinglin – At some far off date, or maybe never. A saint of this name never existed; the name represents a fictional date in the Catholic calendar. Glinglin is said to come from Metz region dialect, referring to the ringing of a bell. If you say you will pay someone at La Saint-Glinglin, it means most likely never. Sometimes people also complain they don’t want to wait until “La Saint-Glinglin”, meaning to hang around “till the cows come home”.

Photo: Derek Ramsey/ Wikimedia Commons

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