Finir en queue de poisson and other French fish phrases

A Frenchman has been named Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the UK’s prestigious Natural History Museum contest. As his photograph features fish, we look at French expressions about fish

15 October 2021

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

A French photographer has won the title of Photographer of the Year in the UK’s Natural History Museum contest with a photograph of grouper fish partly camouflaged by a cloud of fertilised eggs.

This is the first time since the competition launched in 1964 that a Frenchman has won.

Laurent Ballesta, a biologist and photographer from Montpellier, beat over 50,000 candidates from 95 countries with his photograph, entitled Creation, which was taken in the Fakarava lagoon in French Polynesia.

We look at three French expressions inspired by fish.

Finir en queue de poisson (‘to end up in a fishtail’): The French say something ‘ends up in a fishtail’ when it ends abruptly, without the desired or expected results.

Legend has it that a sailor spent months at sea searching for a woman he had seen. However, once he found her and dived into the water, he saw that she was not a woman but  a mermaid – with a literal fishtail.

Some sources date this story to the Roman poet Horace, as early as the first century BC. 

In France, it was popularised in part in the 19th century by the writer Balzac, who used the analogy to describe the streets of Paris.

The fishtail is now used commonly to symbolise any disappointing or unexpected result. 

Noyer le poisson (‘to drown the fish’): This expression means to create confusion.

Some sources claim that it derived from the older saying, ‘la sauce fait passer le poisson’ (‘the sauce makes the fish pass’), which implies any bad taste from a fish is ‘drowned’ by the sauce. This mixture – or perhaps better said confusion – of flavours makes it easier to eat the fish.

Another theory is that the phrase relates to a 19th century fishing method, where in order to tire out a fish caught on a hook, fishermen would plunge it in and out of water. The constant change between water and air makes for the confusion alluded to in the expression.

Muet comme une carpe (‘mute like a carp’): To be as mute as a carp means to say nothing.

This is likely a development of the older phrase ‘muet comme un poisson’ (‘mute like a fish’), which was coined in the early 17th century and popularised by the likes of writer Rabelais. 

The connection here is evident – fish cannot speak. Carp, however, have the habit of sticking their heads out of water and opening their mouths, as if they are trying to speak but are unable to.

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