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Pardon? - The world of the French motorist

Pardon? - The world of the French motorist

Our language expert Emma-Jane Lee once more steps into the fray, exploring the world of the French motorist…

french-lanuage-motorists-motoringWith the annual Circuit des Remparts in Angoulême behind us, you might be wondering if some of the drivers have put themselves behind the wheel of the Peugeot, Renault or Citroën following you. Any drivers among you thinking of a career like Fangio better be careful not to squash the mushroom in case you end up putting yourself in a wallet.

Speed was the order of the day at the Circuit des Remparts. Nobody wants to rouler au pas. You might see this expression on road signs around towns or villages, and it means roll (drive) at walking pace. Literally translated, it means roll at a pace. I guess it depends whether it’s the pace of a tortoise or a hare!

On the other hand, there are lots of expressions for top speed. You will no doubt have heard à toute vitesse which means ‘at top speed’, or more literally, at all speed. You might also have heard à toute allure which means the same thing. Whilst we might have five or six gears now, if we do something en quatrième vitesse, we do it in fourth gear.

Like English speakers, you might put your foot to the floor if you want to speed up, pied au plancher. All of these expressions can be used for anything you do quickly and are not exclusive to motoring, unlike pressing on the mushroom, appuyer sur le champignon. Apparently, whilst we have plates for the accelerator, brake and clutch these days, the first accelerator pedals very much resembled a mushroom. You may also hear écraser le champignon which means crush or squash the mushroom - putting the pedal to the metal is obviously a common instruction if you rouler pépère. Rolling Gramps means you are driving safely and carefully, like an old man, and not rouler comme un Fangio. This popular expression relates to the Argentinian Formula 1 driver, champion in the 1950s.


If you roule comme un Fangio, you need to be careful you aren’t fou du volant - mad behind the steering wheel - and that you don’t perd la boule - lose your ball. Losing your ball is a popular expression for losing your head, which you might well do if you are fou du volant.

And you also need to make sure you don’t conduire comme un pied - drive like a foot. I’m not sure how a foot would drive, but I’m not entirely sure it would be particularly successful. Apparently, this has a root in bête comme un pied  - as stupid as a foot - an old expression relying on the foot being as far away from the brain as possible, and thus not particularly capable of exercising thought and reason.

Not unlike England, there are days when it is not a good idea to hit the roads. Le Bison Futé is a good place to check if you are wanting to find out about road conditions. You might be wondering what a crafty buffalo has to do with traffic, but bison futé is a play on words, and is in fact the national centre for road traffic information.

Watch out for les journées rouges, the red days, when Bison Futé warn of huge delays and bottle-necks, les embouteillages. Apart from the first and final weekend in August, watch out for those weekends where the French faire le pont - make the bridge. No, they aren’t creating huge viaducts on the motorways, as you might imagine, but they are ‘bridging’ over to the weekend from a bank holiday on a Tuesday or a Thursday.

Driving in slow-moving traffic isn’t particularly usual in this country of long roads and fast motorways, so be careful you don’t drive too fast, or else you might put yourself in a wallet. Se mettre en portefeuille might sound like a strange way of saying a lorry has jack-knifed. Both rely on the visual image of something folding, either a wallet or a pocket knife, and describe that too familiar sight on motorways in traffic accidents if the lorry driver has had to monter sur les freins or climb on the brakes.

If you crash, you won’t end up with whiplash like you might in English-speaking countries, but with un coup du lapin - a rabbit blow. The result of a head whipping back to the French-speaking world is much the same as when a boxer delivers a rabbit punch to the back of the neck.

So, be careful in amongst all of those speedy drivers, or else you might end up going by Shanks’ pony. In France, you might say aller à pinces - to go on pincers. And going on pincers doesn’t sound like a very pleasurable way to get around at all!