Se mettre à poil: A French expression you may hear today

A naked bike ride was banned in Bordeaux – but why do the French refer to nudity as being ‘at hair’?

6 September 2021

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

A naked bike ride, scheduled for yesterday (September 5) in Bordeaux, was cancelled by Gironde’s prefecture.

The authorities said it was likely to infringe laws on indecent exposure due to the numbers expected to attend and the fact it was planned for the middle of the afternoon. The organisers had tried to appeal, saying the ban infringed their liberties.

The aim of the international protest, known as World Naked Bike Ride, was to advocate for the climate, biodiversity and bodily freedom.
The French expression se mettre à poil means “to get naked” but why use an expression which literally translates to ‘at hair’?
Various sources trace the term back to the seventeenth century, and in particular to the field of horse riding. 

It is said that riding a horse à poil meant riding bareback  – that is to say à même le poil (against the hair); in other words riding a ‘naked’ horse with no saddle or saddlecloth, just its hair. 

Poil is the French term used for animal hair, and also people’s beard and body hair, as opposed to the hair on your head (cheveux).

By the 19th century, this phrase had been extended to humans with the modern meaning of being naked.
An alternative way to say someone is naked in French is ‘être nu comme un ver.’

Another curious expression relating to hair which the French use is caresser dans le sens du poil, meaning to flatter somebody, in particular with the aim of gaining something in return. 

Literally, it means ‘to stroke in the direction of the hair’ and again relates to animals, which we pet in order to gain their trust or affection. Stroking in the direction of the hair’s growth is more soothing than the alternative.

As with se mettre à poil, the term is now used to refer to humans, too. In this sense it means to speak to someone in a flattering way or ‘butter them up’.

World War One soldiers are also known as poilus  – ‘hairies’  – said to originate from the fact that hairiness was associated with courage.

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