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Pardon? Wintery French sayings

Pardon? Wintery French sayings

Language expert Emma Lee ponders the origin of some of the more wintery French sayings…

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In the middle of winter, our thoughts may turn to all things warm as we hibernate near our fires and select from our wardrobe of hats, gloves and boots before we venture outside. All these scarves and wellies got me thinking about French expressions related to all things cosy and warm. You might be scratching your head if you hear that someone has tailored a suit or thrown his woolly hat over the mill, although English can be just as confusing. Yes, that old chestnut! At the drop of a hat, you might find yourself hot under the collar, getting your knickers in a twist over strange French expressions. Now is the time to roll your sleeves up and get to grips with bonnets and pantalons.  

During the summer, a friend of mine was telling me about a situation at work and how the other person had left habiller pour l’hiver. I did wonder why, given the heat, she might leave dressed in her winter clothes. Perhaps my puzzled expression caused the subsequent explanation: she’d had a good telling off before she left. It intrigued me enough to wonder why we might say this so I looked up the origins of the phrase. Referencing chopping wood into pieces and stripping the bark off it, the expression has more in common with giving someone a dressing-down, or cutting someone down to size than it did with wearing a big coat in winter. It can also mean ‘talking about someone behind their back’.  

Another very similar expression is tailler un costard or tailler un costume or to tailor someone a suit. Whilst you might think this expression fairly strange, it means to bad-mouth someone, to give them a bad reputation. Quite why you’d tailor a suit for someone if you are giving them a bad reputation behind their back, I’m not sure.

Suits and winter clothes are not the only items in your wardrobe which can be used to express a situation. Prendre une veste or ‘to take a jacket’ might seem to suggest like good practical advice, especially if you’re from a more humid climate by origin. However, it doesn’t mean to be well prepared for inclement weather as it means to be beaten mercilessly or to undergo a set-back. It’s sometimes used to suggest someone has had a romantic knock-back.
Winter accessories are not just useful to keep you warm, but in talk too. Woolly hats, gloves and shoes are also used in expressions in French as they are in English. If you find a shoe at your foot, or trouver chaussure à son pied, it means you have found the right person for the job or you have found that special someone.

C’est bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet means literally ‘It’s a woolly hat white and a white woolly hat’. Two ways of expressing the same idea. In other words, you say tomayto and I say tomahto. We may say something a little differently but we mean exactly the same thing.

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This is not the only way you can use your woolly hat in French. If you throw your woolly hat over the mill, you accept that you are incapable of solving a problem. Jeter son bonnet par-dessus les moulins is the exact expression in French. Beware, though. If ladies do it, it can mean throwing caution to the wind!

A rather obscure English insult, “Has your cat died?” might be an expression known to many of us Northerners to suggest that your trousers are too short. With your trouser legs at half-mast, it’s often a sarcastic comment from a friend. In French, you would call half-mast trousers pantalon feu de plancher or ‘trousers fire on the floor’, giving us the lovely notion of trousers that are pulling back up your legs to escape the fire.

If chestnuts and open fires are your thing, you will find a few nutty expressions in French too. If you take the chestnuts out of the fire, or tirer les marrons du feu, you are profiting from a situation you’re faced with, often dishonestly. Un marron can also be a punch too.

With these great French terms, hopefully you will find a little fun in the language and not find yourself too overwhelmed when you are scratching your head in wonder at the strange images evoked by some of these expressions.