En vrac: a French phrase you will be seeing more of

A law change means that certain fruits and vegetables will only be sold ‘en vrac’ (loose) from next year. We look at the origin of the term which was imported from the Netherlands

12 October 2021

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

Various fruit and vegetables will no longer be sold in plastic packaging from January 1, 2022, the government has announced. In French, this is known as selling ‘en vrac’.

The anti-waste law will ensure that fruits such as apples and pineapples, and vegetables including potatoes and carrots, will be sold ‘en vrac’ - loose.

There will be exceptions for fragile fruit and vegetables, such as berries, whose sale without packaging would cause them to deteriorate more quickly.

But what is the origin of the term ‘en vrac’ and where does it come from?

On its own, ‘vrac’ could perhaps be best translated as ‘loose’ in English. 

In the context of supermarkets, it means ‘without packaging’.

However, the expression ‘en vrac’ can also mean ‘in no particular order’, sprained or injured (for example an ankle or knee) or ‘in a state of disorder’. 

This phrase originated in the 18th century in the Netherlands, where the Dutch word ‘wrac’ could be roughly translated to ‘bad’. However, it was mostly used to describe merchandise of poor quality, especially fish.

In particular, the North Sea fishermen would use this term with regards to the herrings that were deemed not good enough to be packaged and sold individually. 

The fishermen did not want to waste time packaging or even cleaning them, so these fish were thrown directly into barrels and sold in bulk on the market.

Due to the strong trade links between the Netherlands and northern France, the term was adopted by the French, who changed the first letter to a ‘v’. 

Gradually, the expression came to be used in various different contexts. Now, it can refer to anything that is in ‘disarray’ – products in the supermarket, a chaotic situation, a state of mind…

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