Granny knows best: French phrases for bedtime bores

We look at the French you don’t learn at school

A linguistic deep dig, conducted by author Jean Maillet in 2021, resulted in a super book for etymology lovers (it is currently in French only): 365 expressions préférées de notre grand-mère (Granny's 365 favourite expressions, published by Les Editions de l'Opportun).

The author unearthed and explained some of the long-lost, charming or cheeky expressions uttered by French people of a certain age back in the day (à l'époque).

Among our favourites is the marvellously intriguing ‘Triste comme un bonnet de nuit’ (translated in English as ‘Sad like a night cap’ – the cap here meaning a fetching little hat, as opposed that one last tipple, or boisson alcoolisée, before dodo).

The person being referred to as ‘sad’ when Granny used to mention them in this context was not necessarily unhappy or sorrowful (malheureux, triste), but rather a party-pooper or averse to fun.

Back in the 17th century when the phrase first appeared, some people would have very short hair in order to wear elaborate wigs, and would then wear a night cap – just like the elderly – at bed time.

Thus the night cap came to symbolise a certain dull, early-to-bed lifestyle.

Today, a more conventional way to describe someone as boring is to call them une personne ennuyeuse.

Which brings us to a common error when using two similar adjectives that both mean ‘boring’ – ennuyant and ennuyeux.

Ennuyant implies a temporary or fleeting sense of boredom, ie ‘Cette conversation est ennuyante’ (this conversation is boring), while ennuyeux implies a person or situation that induces a more constant sense of dullness, worry or annoyance.

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