C'est coton: A French expression your may hear today

On World Cotton Day, we explore French phrases inspired by the popular fabric 

7 October 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

Today is World Cotton Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of the world’s most popular natural fibre which, according to the United Nations, sustains over 100 million families worldwide. We look at four French expressions related to cotton...

The fabric is nicknamed ‘white gold’ due to the role it plays in poverty alleviation and international trade, especially in less economically-developed countries.

In French, there are several phrases related to cotton.

C’est coton’ (literally ‘it’s cotton’) is a phrase used to describe something difficult. It originated in 19th century cotton mills, where particularly harsh working conditions inspired the slang expression.

The term was initially used by factory workers in reference to cotton-spinning but over time it left the industrial domain and moved into everyday language. 

Avoir les jambes en coton’ translates to ‘to have cotton legs’. Due to the fibre’s soft texture, this expression is used to describe feeling weak and not having any strength in your  legs. You are likely to hear it used when somebody is ill and thus weak or tired.

This metaphor was coined by French writer Stendhal and first used in his 1839 novel La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma). 

Again due to the soft feel of cotton, the phrase ‘élever un enfant dans du coton’ (‘to raise a child in cotton’) is used to refer to overprotective and indulgent parenting. (In English we might say, ‘to wrap them up in cotton wool’.)

Filer un mauvais coton’ (‘to spin a bad cotton’), however, means to be in a bad situation that is likely to only get worse.

This expression was coined in the 19th century and derives from the older saying, ‘jeter un vilain coton’ (‘to throw a bad cotton’). 

In the 18th century, it would be said that fabric was ‘throwing bad cotton’ when it started pilling and would soon need to be thrown out. The term came to mean ‘to be ruined’ in a general sense and later was used to refer to deteriorating health.

Eventually, the expression ‘filer un mauvais coton’ appeared but it is now used to refer to any sort of bad situation – such as economic or physical – that is due to get worse.

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