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Pardon? - The more unusual phrases

Pardon? - The more unusual phrases

Our language expert Emma-Jane Lee once more steps into the fray, taking a look at some of the more unusual phrases in the French language…

french-language-unusual-phrasesLanguages are full of comparisons, some a little more strange than others. Perhaps one of my favorite comparative lists is that of the poet Sir Edmund Spenser, who compares the smell of his lady’s eyes to that of carnations. Who doesn’t have eyes that smell of carnations?

French is, of course, no different from English in its strange comparisons, some of which are suspiciously fishy.

You’d be right if you thought that having eyes like fried whiting wouldn’t be a compliment. ‘Faire des yeux de merlan frit’ - making fried whiting eyes - is a wonderful expression meaning having glazed-over eyes. It used to mean you were in love, your expression amorous, although comes from an older expression relating to carpe frite - and I’m still not sure I’d like to be told that I had eyes like a fried carp, even if it might mean you have big, round eyes. Another expression that matches this one is ‘faire l’oeil de carpe’ which can mean to roll your eyes, but is much more likely to suggest looking at someone with doe eyes.

The poor carp is also the subject of the expression ‘bâiller comme une carpe’ - to yawn like a carp. Because these poor fish seem to have a mouth too big for their body and can often be seen coming to the surface, opening these huge mouths to suck in a tasty delicacy or two, you can understand why you might say someone yawns like a carp. Going around with its mouth gaping also made it look a little stupid, hence the expression ‘ignorant comme une carpe’.

The carp might also marry unfortunately, if she marries a rabbit. ‘Le mariage de la carpe et du lapin’ means an ill-matched marriage - exactly as the expression conjures up. Perhaps even more than ill-matched, something unnatural and strange, too.

Not only does the ignorant carp have amorous eyes, a gaping mouth and a bad marriage, it’s also a fish renowned for its silence: ‘muet comme une carpe’. As to why carp are quieter than any other fish, there doesn’t seem to be an explanation.

It is not the carp, however, but the roach that is healthy and fit, should you want to compare someone’s general alertness and good health. We might say as fresh as a daisy, the French say as fresh as a roach: ‘frais comme un gardon’. Apparently, there is some logic behind this. Roach are known for keeping fresh a long time after other fish have gone off.

Your hairdresser may well ask if you want une raie. This is not a skate, better suited to a shallow frying, but a parting. ‘Une raie au milieu’ is a centre parting, not a fish who can’t decide which way to vote.

Not all fish are beautiful, or have such positive qualities, though. If someone says a girl is ‘moche comme un thon,’ it’s not a compliment. Being as ugly as a tuna certainly isn’t a compliment in anyone’s book.

And whilst we might say we feel like a fish out of water to express our discomfort, for the French, the expression focuses on the opposite - ‘comme un poisson dans l’eau’ - more like ‘happy as a pig in muck’.

If you weren’t as happy as a fish in water, you might want to ‘engueuler quelqu’un comme du poisson pourri’. La gueule is slang or popular French for la bouche - the mouth - and gueuler is the verb for yelling at someone. ‘Engueuler quelqu’un comme du poisson pourri’ is a fairly modern expression which means to give someone a mouthful, to bawl them out. The exact meaning in English isn’t easy to translate.  Given the stench of a rotting fish, it’s a pretty terrible thing to call someone.

Of course, there are many expressions that are the same. Someone who preys on others, especially financially, is still a shark - un requin - and if you’re crammed in tightly, you’re still a sardine. There are some more offensive comparisons, too, but they’re a completely different kettle of fish altogether.

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. For more information see