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Pardon? - French expressions featuring "faire"

Pardon? - French expressions featuring "faire"

Emma-Jane Lee, our language expert, makes sense of some well known, and not so well known, French expressions featuring faire...


If we were to take certain French expressions with faire literally, we might make vinegar, make a tobacconist’s shop or do work in a wig. And English can be just as complicated. You just might not be able to make heads nor tails of it all, though perhaps you are making a mountain out of a molehill. Just don’t make a song and dance about it.

Perhaps the most festive expression with faire is faire la bombe - to make a bomb. This is not any kind of military activity, however, but an expression meaning ‘to have a huge blow-out’. It comes from faire bombance which means to have a huge feast. Usually, it relates to a massive gastronomic feast but it can mean something similar to ‘painting the town red’ as well. And, if it’s a really good night, you might even say c’est de la bombe!

You can also say faire la bringue for having a huge feast or festival too. Nowadays, it just means a trip out to have a few drinks with friends.

Perhaps, if you have musical friends, you might make a bull. Faire un boeuf means to have an impromptu musical session, to jam. Although you might wonder where the expression comes from, it actually refers to a restaurant, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where many early jazz musicians would get up for improvised sets.

If your jam session is successful, you might faire un tabac or make a tobacconist’s shop. I think we would say ‘to bring the house down’ in English. It relates to making a huge noise, since ‘un tabac’ was a huge clap of thunder out at sea which could literally tear the hull off a boat. Thus, if your musical efforts were successful, you would generate such applause that it could be likened to thunder. Perhaps, it might be very profitable too. You might even say you made fat cabbages, or faire ses choux gras which means that you made a success of it. We might say ‘have a field day’ in English. It means that you would reap the rewards or cash in on a situation.
Hopefully, if you are meeting a few friends for a night out, they won’t make you do a leek. Faire le poireau might literally mean to make a leek, but it is an expression that means making you wait or hang about. Perhaps related to the fact that leeks are often the last thing waiting in the vegetable patch, if you’re making the leek, you’re hanging about waiting too. There is even a verb for this - poireauter - which means to hang about or loiter.


Maybe your friends need to hurry up, and so you would tell them to faire vinaigre or make vinegar. It means get a move on, ‘quick sharp’ or ‘chop-chop!’ As vinegar, like wine, takes time to make, you might well wonder why we would faire vinaigre when we mean we should hurry up. It goes back to a skipping game in the 14th century, believe it or not.

If somebody is larking about or making a fool of themselves, they might faire l’oeuf or faire le Jacques. If you say quel oeuf! or ‘What an egg!’ it’s not even slightly like our lovely English expression ‘a good egg’, meaning someone who is kind or good. In French, quel oeuf! means ‘what an idiot!’ So if they are making the egg, they are making a fool of themselves. If you faire le Jacques or ‘do the Jack’, you are perhaps acting in a silly way in order to make everyone else laugh. It can be either positive - a comic - or negative - someone who’s doing silly and annoying things.

Once the New Year is out of the way and it’s back to work, you might faire un travail en perruque. This literally means ‘do a job in a wig’, and although you might think it relates to the legal profession or even a circus, it actually relates to work often done on the sly. It means doing things for your own profit on work time or using company tools for your own profit.

Hopefully these expressions have made the grade and have made your day. If not, I will make myself scarce. Make no bones about it, language can be very strange.


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. See