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Pardon? Fairytale sayings

Pardon? Fairytale sayings

Emma Lee, our language expert, explores expressions that have their roots in stories handed down through the generations...

Given that so many of the fairy tales we tell our children come from the continent, it’s hardly a surprise that the language of bedtime stories have made their way into every-day French, sprinkling a little magic and fairy dust wherever they go. If you’re away with the fairies, there’s no magic formula for improving your French; unfortunately, you can’t wave a wand or cast a magic spell.

french-fairy-tale-phrasesSo many expressions from fairy stories have made it into daily conversation, from ‘Prince Charming’ and ‘a fairy godmother’ to expressions such as ‘You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince’ and referring to ‘streets paved with gold’. Given that the fairy stories of Charles Perrault were translated from French into English, there are many details that are easy and direct translations. La bonne fée and la fée marraine are straightforward: a good fairy and a fairy godmother. Just as in English, they are both used to mean a woman who is a sponsor, benefactor or role-model rather than someone who is truly magical.

Having fairy fingers, or les doigts de fée depends very much on context as it can be a biscuit, a thief or a skilled craftsperson. Les doigts de fée can refer to a finger-shaped biscuit made with powdered almonds and honey, but it can also be someone who is very neat and meticulous when completing a practical task. If you were good at sewing, you might have les doigts de fée. It can also mean ‘light-fingered’ though!

There are two expressions that might be a little confusing to the British ear, however. Far from being a rather wonderful stick of bread, a baguette magique is a fairy wand. No matter how stale it gets, you probably won’t get to Hogwarts with it. The other involves something we may consider more akin to washing up liquid than something alcoholic, but the green fairy - la fée verte - is absinthe rather than mild green Fairy Liquid.


Fairies are not the only story creatures who appear in everyday speech. You’ll certainly find a fair few frogs as well. Manger la grenouille or ‘eating the frog’ might bring to mind the famous French delicacy of frogs’ legs, but this rather old-fashioned expression has little to do with eating and everything to do with stealing the profits. If you’ve been left in charge of the finances and you’re a little light-fingered with the contents of the cash box, you may stand accused of ‘eating the frog’. Before its fairytale friend the pig gave its form to the piggy bank, a frog was a well-known shape of money box. It’s also a way of referring to a charitable ‘kitty’. Il a mangé la grenouille can mean that ‘he has robbed the cash box’ rather than he’s literally eaten a frog!

As in English, there are plenty of French expressions with wolves, not least ‘crying wolf’ and ‘keeping the wolf from the door’. In French, to say someone has the habit of crying wolf, you would say à force de crier au loup. Where we might ‘wolf something down’ in English, you ‘have a wolf’s hunger’ in French - avoir une faim de loup. If English has many expressions with wolves, there are far more in French. If you’re as well known as a white wolf, connu comme le loup blanc, you’re a household name. Where we speak of the devil and he shall appear, the French speak of a wolf and see his tail: quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue. In English, we put the cat among the pigeons and in French, you let the wolf into the sheep-fold: faire entrer le loup dans la bergerie.

Our friends the fairytale pigs are much less of a problem although you might not want to read their handwriting. Pigs are just as dirty as we think of them in English, comme un cochon or ‘like a pig’ is just as dirty as its English counterpart. If you write like a pig, écrire comme un cochon, your writing is terribly untidy. But if you are as thick as thieves in French, you are friends like pigs: copains comme cochons.

Although you might feel pigs are more likely to fly than you are to master French, hopefully with a few of these fairy-tale expressions mastered, you might just go on to live happily ever after. If you get stuck and you are having problems remembering une fin heureuse, the anglicism of un happy end is probably much easier.