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Pardon? Farmyard expressions

Pardon? Farmyard expressions

Emma-Jane Lee finds that, as in English, the farmyard is the source of many popular French expressions

french-expressions-leraningLast night as I helped herd up two calves , I thought that life in France can be vachement different to life in England. Our use of farmyard expressions when we speak is not much different though. I’m sure waiting till the cows come home makes as little sense to foreigners in English-speaking countries as eating enraged cow does to foreigners in French-speaking countries. 

Bulls in china shops, holy cows, sacred cows, cash cows and taking the bull by the horns might cause much amusement to students of English as they imagine the literal meaning of many of our famous English idioms. Speaking like a Spanish cow or to have a bull on the tongue might not make sense until you find out what they really mean. There is more to French farmyard expressions, though, than la vache qui rit.

Some expressions are very similar to those expressions we have in English. Where we might take the bull by the horns if we mean to seize the day and get on with sorting out a problem or difficult situation in a determined way, the French will prendre le taureau par les cornes.

The first time you hear someone say “La vache!” it might make you laugh. How has a cow become a phrase of pity or amazement? You only have to think of our own expression, “Holy Cow!” and it makes a little more sense. As for the word vachement, it always gives me a smile. The ending ‘-ment’ in France often translates to ‘-ly’ in English, giving us the literal ‘cowly’. C’est vachement bien is literally ‘it’s cowly good!’ but really means ‘it’s extremely good!’

Then some expressions vary a little. If we go about things in a disorderly manner, we might put the cart before the horse, whereas in French, you would put the cart before the bulls or mettre la charrue devant les boeufs. If we bleed like a stuck pig in English, they saigner comme un boeuf in French, or bleed like a cow.

Some French terms, however, are very different from English ones. If you hear someone say they have a bull on the tongue, avoir un boeuf sur la langue, it means to keep mum and guard a secret. One reason for this expression might be that the money used to buy silence by the ancient Greeks often had a cow on it: more of a bribe for enforced silence.

One expression I have found that always raises a smile from my French friends is when I say I speak French like a Spanish cow. Parler français comme une vache espagnole is probably an expression that relates to ‘basque espagnol’ rather than Spanish cows, but either way, it means to speak French terribly. I think it always raises a smile simply because in knowing the expression, you clearly have quite a good grasp of French compared to many.

A final expression you might come across involving cows is to eat an enraged cow. Manger or bouffer de la vache enragée is a way of saying that you are living a hard life, or you have fallen on hard times. Though it comes from the accidental use of ‘enraged’ instead of malade, it makes a little more sense if you think of people having so little money that the only thing they can afford to eat is not of very good quality at all.

The goat in English is often a symbol of capriciousness and fooling around, especially if you act the goat. In French, the goat is much more serious. If you economise on goat and cabbage in French, it means you keep both sides of a deal sweet. Ménager la chèvre et le chou. Ménager in this sense means to treat something equally or to not displease rather than to economise and so you are treating both goat and cabbage equally. If you look around farms with goats, there often isn’t a cabbage to be seen because the goats eat them all, so if you can manage to keep both goats and cabbages happy, you are keeping both sides sweet.

If you become goat, or devenir chèvre in French, you aren’t playing the fool as you might be doing in English. You are becoming impatient to the point of being enraged. Perhaps it tells us something about goats not being the most patient of animals.

So with these phrases, you are ready to seize the bull by the horns, not play the goat and get on with speaking French less like a Spanish cow.