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Pardon? - Garden inspiration

Pardon? - Garden inspiration

Emma-Jane Lee takes inspiration from the garden for her foray into the language world this time…


Hopefully the summer months are allowing you to make hay whilst the sun shines, and you haven’t found yourself going to seed, shaking like a leaf or even - heaven forbid! - pushing up daisies. If you’ve decided to take root in France, it’s nice when everything comes up smelling of roses.

Like English, French expressions are filled with plant life. You are hopefully not given to pushing grandma into the nettles, or going to the daisies, or, worse still, eating dandelions by the roots.

The word dandelion is a funny word anyway, coming from the French for lion’s tooth - dent de lion - although it’s common to hear it by a less polite name in England that evokes its French equivalent. Le pissenlit is not that far away from piss-a-bed, its occasional English name. Still, if you are eating dandelions by the roots, you are most likely pushing up daisies in England, as manger les pissenlits par les racines is a polite way of saying you are six feet under. Of course, if you smell the pine, you also don’t have long to live. Sentir le sapin is a euphemism for being at death’s door. A pine tree may be a symbol of Christmas, but it was also a popular wood for coffins, so if you could smell it, you didn’t have much time left at all.

Our day’s eye, or daisy, is also different from its French equivalent, la pâquerette. ‘Ette’ is often an ending added to something to show it is a small version, like I live on a fermette and there is a superette in my local town. Pâquerettes always make me think of little Easters, since pâques is Easter. Aller aux pâquerettes is the expression you might use for a goalkeeper in football who has to go right to the back of the net to retrieve the ball, but its also the expression you can use in cycling if you come off your bike and end up on the grass verge. I guess it could also be used by all the drivers who end up in a ditch.


If something is au ras des pâquerettes - cropped to the daisies - it means it is at a very simple level, or a very low level or not of very good quality.

Another popular weed, the nettle, is also a source of several expressions. My favourite has to be faut pas pousser grand-mère dans les orties, or you must not push grandma into the nettles. Of course, this is sage advice even on a literal level. This means that you shouldn’t exaggerate. It also means, though, that you shouldn’t go too far. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Couch grass is the bane of many gardeners’ lives, although in France it goes by another name, chiendent or dog tooth. If you say voilà le chiendent or quel chiendent or even c’est du chiendent meaning ‘there’s the couch grass’, it means you’ve identified a major obstacle. Not unlike a difficult obstacle, couch grass’s long, intertwined roots make it very difficult to dig out. You have a long and arduous task ahead, no doubt.

Another expression connected to exaggeration is charrier dans les bégonias. Charrier means to get swept along or to be carried along, so you are swept into the begonias. There doesn’t seem to be a reason why it’s begonias rather than any other flower. I guess it means you are so carried away that you end up in the flowerbeds.

If you make hay in England, it has connotations of productivity. In France, it means you are kicking up a stink, making a fuss or making a lot of noise. Il fait du foin means ‘he’s kicking up a fuss’. In fact, if you have gone as far as making hay, you might as well shake the coconut tree. Secouer le cocotier means to shake something until it is productive. You’re shaking the life into them.

I think, most of all, my favourite expression involving plants is the saying “Donnez de l’avoine à un âne, il vous petera au nez”. Give oats to a donkey and it will fart in your nose. Or, good deeds aren’t always received with gratitude!

If all of this is a little difficult to recall, remember it is true what they say: un vieux rosier ne se transplante pas. You can’t move an old rose. Or, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.



Emma is a jack-of-all-language-trades, writing English textbooks, translating, marking exam scripts and teaching languages. She lives near La Rochefoucauld with her growing menagerie.