Sous une chape de plomb and other lead-related French expressions

President Macron’s newly-announced €30billion investment plan includes the exploration of seabeds and the potential of accessing certain rare materials, including lead. We explore three expressions related to the metal...

22 October 2021

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

President Macron unveiled the ‘France 2030’ investment plan on October 12, which includes the exploration of oceans.

The plan consists of dedicating €30billion to various departments such as the health and energy sectors. Around €2billion will go towards the exploration of space and seabeds, the latter of which has worried environmentalists.

Read more: Key points of Macron’s multi-billion euro investment plan for France

France has the second-largest maritime space in the world due to its overseas territories.

However, President Macron assured that the plan is to ‘explore’ as opposed to ‘exploit’, although he did mention the possibility of ‘access to certain rare materials’. Among these could be elements such as lead, platinum, copper, iron or cobalt.

We look at three French expressions related to lead:

Sous une chape de plomb (literally ‘under a leaden cloak):

This refers to something which makes us feel trapped, usually a moral burden.

In the Middle Ages, a ‘chape de plomb’ was an instrument of torture. ‘Chape’ can be translated as either ‘screed’ (a layer of material) or ‘cope’ (a priest’s cloak).

Some sources say that the ‘chape de plomb’ was a heavy leaden screed, which was used to crush prisoners’ rib cages. Others claim that it was a leaden cope used to weigh the prisoner down and cause them suffering.

Nevertheless, due to the association with guilt and the church (which would have ordered the punishment), it is now said that somebody with a guilty conscience is ‘under a leaden cloak’.

Avoir du plomb dans l’aile (literally ‘to have lead in your wing):

This means to have lost strength or efficiency.

The phrase is said to have been coined in the 18th or 19th century by hunters who, after shooting a bird, would see it struggle to fly and fall to the ground. The expression is now used commonly to describe someone who has become weak, for example somebody in bad health.

Un soleil de plomb (literally ‘a leaden sun’):

An English equivalent of this expression might be ‘blazing sun’.

Here, the sun’s rays are compared to lead - heavy and thus difficult to withstand, overwhelming. The earliest use of this expression is likely by Alphonse de Lamartine in his 1835 book Voyage en Orient (Journey to the Orient). 

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