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Pardon? - Tricky words and unusual phrases

Pardon? - Tricky words and unusual phrases

Learning another language means getting to grips not just with verbs and tenses but also tricky words and unusual phrases. Our language expert Emma-Jane Lee steps into the fray, taking a look at the idiosyncrasies of the French language...


The second of February and the fifteenth of July might not seem to be very memorable dates in the English-speaking world, but should I say Groundhog Day or St Swithin’s Day, you might give a little nod of age-old wisdom. In fact, less ‘age-old wisdom’ and more ‘old wives’ tales’, but you will probably know the folklore behind at least one of these days.

Groundhog Day – a more modern, American phenomenon - is of course the day on which the fabled groundhog emerges from its burrow. If it sees clouds, it will stay out and there will be an early spring. If it sees sun and its shadow, it retreats back to its burrow and winter remains for another six weeks.

This notion of Groundhog Day is rooted in older British folklore. The second of February is not unimportant in itself. It is Candlemas, and Scottish and English folklore dictate we will have a prolonged winter if it is sunny on Candlemas. Candlemas, or le Chandeleur is more celebrated in France. Here, you will find crêpes adorning the supermarket shelves.

Le Chandeleur is also notable for its folklore prophecy: “S’il pleut à la Chandeleur, les vaches donnent beaucoup de beurre. Soleil de Chandeleur annonce hiver et malheur”. If it rains on Candlemas, the cows will give lots of butter. Sun on Candlemas will bring winter and unhappiness. It’s funny how rain is so frequently associated with a happy prophecy. Perhaps it’s just to do with the rhyming qualities of pluvieux and heureux – rainy and happy.

The fifteenth of July is a much more English day – in particular, it is a East Anglian day. St Swithin’s Day, the fifteenth of July, is perhaps the most memorable with its prophecy that it will rain for forty days if it rains at all.

Rural France with its focus on farm life and church life has many more of these special days connected to the weather as you might expect. In fact, with each day being that of a named saint, you can find predictions and folklore proverbs for most saints and most days. And each one brings a little saying. If it rains today, it’ll rain for forty days. If it’s windy today, it’ll be windy for another week. Mild winter, rubbish spring. Hot summer, cold winter.

Of course, English-speakers also have expressions like this, for instance saying that if March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb. The French expression: “Si mars commence en courroux, il finira tout doux, tout doux” – if March begins in wrath, it will finish softly. Other, similar expressions about March say either at the beginning or the end of the month, March will show us its venom: “Soit au début, soit à la fin, Mars nous montre son venin.


We also find that “Mars venteux, verger pommeux” – a windy March makes for lots of apples. Something to do with pollination, I’d guess, as much as the rhyming of venteux and pommeux. Pommeux is an unusual word. You can see pomme in there. Adding –eux just makes it into an adjective, like joyeux and heureux – like we might add ‘ous’, ‘y’ or ‘ful’ to our nouns. Apple-full or Apple-ous. I think I prefer ‘appley’.

St Swithin’s Day might bring forty days of rain to England, but legend has it that if it is windy for the first four days of April, it will be windy for forty more! “Si les quatre premiers jours d’avril sont venteux, il y en aura pour quarante jours”.

My favourite April day is St Prudence, because if it’s windy on St Prudence’s day, the sheep will dance. I like the idea of dancing sheep, though I’m not quite sure why the wind would make them dance! “Au jour de sainte-Prudence, s’il fait du vent les moutons dansent

April also brings us the saying that it’s not April unless the cuckoo says so: “Il n’est jamais avril si le coucou ne l’a dit.” This also seems in keeping with lots of other English language expressions about the cuckoo.

The word “Pâques” seems very different from the English word “Easter” – although if you replace the long disappeared “s” so that the word reads “Pasques” you can see it is a lot more like “Paschal”. Our English word is much more like the Germanic “Ostern” rather than the Latinate Spanish “Pascua de Resurrección”, Italian “Pascua” or the Portuguese “Páscoa”.

The literal translation of “Pâques pluvieuses, mains pâteuses” is “rainy Easter, doughy hands”. Apparently, if it’s a rainy Easter, there will be a bumper harvest and this means you will have a lot of crops for flour and baking, so your hands will be doughy. However, woe betide us if we have a wet Holy Week: “Semaine sainte pluvieuse, année ruineuse.” – a wet Holy week and we’ll have a ruinous year. Does this mean we just want rain on Easter Sunday and not in the week before?

The very first dicton or saying that I heard when I moved to France was the sage advice of a neighbour who said: “En avril ne te découvre pas d’un fil. En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît.” – Don’t strip down to shorts in April, but do as you like in May. In fact, don’t even take off a single thread. This might explain why French people are very warmly attired in what seems like perfectly pleasant weather to me.



Emma is a jack-of-all-language-trades, writing English textbooks, translating, marking exam scripts for a major examination board and teaching languages. Although she started her adult life as an English language and literature specialist, she has broadened her horizons to include Western European languages and Japanese. For more information see