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Pardon? - The world of the fallen

Pardon? - The world of the fallen

Emma-Jane Lee, our language expert, discovers the world of the fallen in both French and English...



If you are making your way to the ski slopes this winter, hopefully you will not be doing a lot of falling down. Your cries may fall on deaf ears if you have fallen by the wayside. If you fell like a ton of bricks, or heaven forbid, fell off the wagon, you might have fallen on hard times. Yes, English is full of expressions using fall and French is no different with tomber.

Many expressions are very similar, as you might expect. Tomber malade (to fall ill) and tomber enceinte (fall pregnant) are two such examples. And there are plenty of expressions to do with rain and how it falls, like tomber des cordes and tomber des hallebardes - to rain in cords or to rain spears.

There are the familiar pleasurable expressions, of course. You might tomber sous le charme, or fall under the charm, if you fall for someone or something. Both expressions make me think of wicked witches and fairy godmothers casting spells, as if we have been literally enchanted.

You could also tomber amoureux or fall in love. Not such a bad thing. And then you might have bien tomber or well fallen. You’ve landed on your feet. However, not all French expressions involving tomber are quite so straightforward. And many of the expressions with tomber fall quite significantly from their literal meaning, leaving we English speakers quite bemused.

Falling on a beak might be a little alarming, especially if it is a big beak. Tomber sur un bec means to hit an obstacle. You could always say ‘come a cropper’ as well. In this expression, the bec is not really a beak but a bec de gaz or gaslamp. As we might unexpectedly walk into a lamp-post if distracted, it’s the same idea of walking into something and banging into an unexpected obstacle.


If it’s a literal obstacle, you might even tomber comme un couperet or fall like a guillotine blade. We would say come down like a ton of bricks. The idea is the same though. Swift and fatal! You can also say tomber raide which means the same thing. But if you tombe raide mort, you would drop down stone dead.

A fall in France is not always so final. There are many expressions for fainting that use tomber in French. Tomber faible for example, meaning ‘to fall weak’. You might also fall in the apples if you faint, or tomber dans les pommes. Why apples rather than any other fruit is perhaps something to do with a play on words in the past. You can also tomber dans les vapes if you pass out. Be careful though; être dans les vapes means to be in a daze, perhaps because you are hungover!

Falling in a decanter might not seem like the easiest thing to do. Tomber or rester en carafe means that your car has broken down; not perhaps what you might have thought since it seems very far from its English meaning. Another way to translate it would be that you have been abandoned or stranded like wine left in a decanter. You can also say tomber en rideau if your car has refused to start. ‘Fall in curtain’ might seem a strange expression to use, but tomber de rideau means to bring down the curtain at the end of a performance so we may say it’s curtains for the car.

You might be extremely surprised to fall naked. Indeed, that is exactly what tomber des nues means - to be extremely surprised, to be flabbergasted. Tu tombes des nues means ‘you’ll be extremely surprised’. You may also hear the expression tomber de haut, or ‘fall from high’ to mean the same thing. It certainly would also be a shock to fall from a great height.

Perhaps, if you have a friend who is constantly late, you might be surprised if they tomber à pic - literally if they fall at the peak, or arrive just in time. Sometimes we might also say they arrived in the nick of time. You can also tomber à point nommé or fall at the named point if you arrive just at the right moment. So if you are going skiing this winter, let’s hope that you don’t fall on a beak, fall like a guillotine, fall in the apples or fall in a decanter. If you do, let’s hope that you fall naked and that someone arrives at the peak. After all, it all might tomber bien in the end.


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