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Pardon? Numbers everywhere

Pardon? Numbers everywhere

Emma Lee, our language expert, hopes our days aren’t numbered…

With so many numbers to choose from, I certainly didn’t need to search the four corners of the globe for a few phrases that continue from the last issue. There’s safety in numbers, after all. Besides, with a million and one expressions to cover, you should certainly find a couple to allow you to talk nineteen to the dozen in French too.

france-french-languageThe best thing about lots of the number expressions is that they are exactly the same in English as they are in French. For example, ‘six feet under’ is six pieds sous terre, and ‘being in seventh heaven’ is être au septième ciel. The fun expressions are always the ones that are get completely lost in translation, though.

One expression that certainly doesn’t translate literally is that of a five-legged sheep which might suggest something of a rarity. Where we might say ‘as rare as hens’ teeth’, un mouton à cinq pattes is also something difficult to come by. You also might wonder what is meant if you are advised il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler but what my grandad would certainly have said would be ‘don’t put your mouth into motion before your brain is in gear’. Reflect a little before speaking, in other words.

Another expression that doesn’t work when you translate literally is that of en huit or ‘in eight’ when you mean ‘in a week’s time’. Lundi prochain is ‘next Monday’. Lundi en huit is ‘a week on Monday’. It also works for two weeks as well, with lundi en quinze. So if today’s Tuesday and your garage gives you a meeting vendredi en huit, they mean a week on Friday. I know there aren’t eight days between the two dates, but it’s a lot more simple than saying vendredi de la semaine prochaine. You can also say dans les huit jours and sous huit jours or ‘in a week’s time’ or ‘in less than a week.’ Must be something to do with the Romans because you can use a similar expression in Italian.

English has something of a fixation on the number nine, with nine-day wonders, dressed to the nines, going the whole nine yards, nine times out of ten and cloud nine. One number in French that is unexpectedly frequent when it comes to expressions is the number thirty-six. You might see thirty-six candles, do something on the thirty-sixth of the month, or do thirty-six things at once. Although the reason that nine is so popular in English isn’t so clear, thirty-six is just a random number in French that has come to mean ‘quite a lot’.


If you see thirty-six candles, or voir trente-six chandelles, you are as we would say in English, seeing stars. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical, like a concussion, or mental, you’re in a daze. If you’re shocked, you see thirty-six candles. In the past, it used to mean you were dazzled or blinded by something. Originally, you used to just see candles, then a thousand candles, then thirty-six. Being stunned has obviously become much less dramatic over time.
Logically, you can understand that you’d never get round to doing something if you waited for the thirty-sixth of the month. Tous les trente-six du mois means something along the lines of ‘once in a blue moon’, or ‘never in a month of Sundays’.

Perhaps you find yourself with too many things to do in the day, and not enough hours to do them in. You might say that you had ‘thirty-six things to do’, j’ai trente-six choses à faire or even j’ai trente-six mille choses à faire. In English, we might translate that as ‘I’ve got umpteen things to do!’ If you find yourself doing thirty-six things at the same time, faire trente-six choses à la fois, you’ve got too many irons in the fire.

As for getting dressed up to the nines, in French you can say se mettre sur son trente et un. Nobody knows why we English speakers get dressed up to the nines or why French speakers put on their thirty-ones, although one thought is that we get dressed up to the nines because we borrowed the expression from French where neuf means both ‘nine’ and ‘new’. Strange that we might have borrowed an expression from French that is completely different here.

As you can see, these expressions are ten a penny. Hopefully you aren’t now seeing thirty-six candles and you’ll get these expressions in one now you’re putting two and two together