French Idioms

Ecrire des tartines

Café et tartines

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s idiom is, “Ecrire des tartines.”

Literally translated as, “writing tartines” (a tartine is a slice of bread topped with some sort of spread, such as butter or jam), it means writing reams, or being unnecessarily wordy.

Example: “J’étais surprise que sa lettre soit si courte ; d’habitude, il m’écrit des tartines.” “I was surprised his letter was so short; he usually writes me tartines.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

This colloquial expression can also appear in the singular (“écrire une tartine”) and is derived from the 18th-century journalists’ slang, in which une tartine was a very long (and, it is implied, boring) article or speech. A rather self-explanatory image; I always picture the writer or speaker fastidiously buttering a long piece of split baguette.

Ne pas savoir si c’est du lard ou du cochon

Basque Piglet

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s idiom is, “Ne pas savoir si c’est du lard ou du cochon” (or: “Se demander si c’est du lard ou du cochon”).

Literally translated as, “not knowing whether it’s lard* or pork**” (or: wondering whether it’s lard or pork), it means not knowing what to think/believe. It is most often used when you’re faced with a fact or statement that comes from an unreliable source, or when you’re not sure whether someone is being serious or pulling your leg.

Example: “Il a un humour très particulier, on ne sait jamais si c’est du lard ou du cochon.” “He has a very peculiar sense of humor, you never know whether it’s lard or pork.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

The idiom’s origin was not entirely clear to me — lard is pork, so what is there to hesitate about? — so I turned to my parents’ copy of Claude Duneton’s Bouquet des expressions imagées.

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Avoir du pain sur la planche

Baguette

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s expression is, “Avoir du pain sur la planche.”

Literally translated as, “having bread on the board,” it means having a lot of work to do, or having a lot on one’s plate*, with the added notion that the tasks in question are somewhat tedious.

Example: “J’ai accepté de coudre les costumes pour le spectacle de danse de mon fils : j’ai du pain sur la planche !” “I’ve agreed to sew the costumes for my son’s dance recital: I have bread on the board!”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

I had always assumed that the board referred to here was une planche à pain (a bread cutting board) or a simple planche à découper (a cutting board) — the difference between the two is that the former includes some sort of crumb-collecting contraption — and that “having bread on the board” meant that you had lots of slicing to do. And if the loaf was a bit stale, it would take some effort to work your way through it.

My go-to idiomatic ressources, however, steered me in a different direction.

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Tomber comme un cheveu sur la soupe

Soupe

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s expression is, “Tomber comme un cheveu sur la soupe.”

The literal translation is, “falling like a hair* on soup,” and it means that something or someone appears at an inappropriate or incongruous moment, and is thus completely out of place. (The idiom can also be formed with the verbs arriver, to arrive, or venir, to come, instead of tomber, to fall.)

Interestingly enough, in the context of this expression, the hair found in a bowl of soup causes no disgust. It is merely seen as an anomaly, a thing of no value or consequence that diverts one’s attention from what’s really important: the soup.

Example: “Je n’ai vraiment pas aimé la fin : la scène avec les extraterrestres tombe comme un cheveu sur la soupe.” “I really didn’t like the ending: the scene with the aliens falls like a hair on soup.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

Comme un cheveu sur la soupe is also the title of a 1957 movie with Louis de Funès (but no aliens).

* In French, there are two words for hair, depending on where it grows: un cheveu is the hair that grows on the head, whereas un poil is the hair that grows on the body. In both cases, the terms refer to an individual hair; if you were to compliment someone on his hair, you would use the plural, les cheveux.

Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s expression is, “Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine.”

Literally translated as, “rolling someone in flour,” it means duping someone, playing a trick on him, or using one’s wits and lies to take advantage of someone who’s a little naive, or not quite as smart as one is.

According to these sources, the expression dates back to the early nineteenth century. Rouler quelqu’un (literally, rouler = to roll) means cheating or swindling somebody, and la farine (flour) symbolizes lies, or misleading arguments, perhaps in relation to the fact that actors then used it as stage makeup. It also adds a notion of ridicule: the gullible victim is somehow responsible for letting himself be fooled so easily.

Example: “A chaque fois, elle lui promettait que ça ne se reproduirait plus, mais tout le monde voyait bien qu’elle le roulait dans la farine.” “She kept promising it wouldn’t happen again, but everyone could see she was rolling him in flour.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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