Avoir du pain sur la planche


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.

First of all, the expression used to have another meaning entirely: until the early 20th century, it meant that your future was well provided for. In other words, you had enough bread stocked up (on a bread board nailed high so rodents wouldn’t get to it) that you wouldn’t go hungry.

And then people grew accustomed to consuming fresh bread rather than dense loaves that kept for weeks, and the bread and board started to evoke instead the uncooked loaves that the boulanger lines up on a board to rise. The concept of “having bread on the board” then shifted to mean that the baker still had a lot of work to do before his bread was ready to sell. (Although one might argue that by the time the loaves are kneaded and shaped, the bulk of the work is done.)

Another theory, which I find harder to swallow, is that it somehow derives from the (now outdated) expressions la planche au pain (the bread board), used by ruffians to refer to a tribunal, and manger le pain du roi (eating the king’s bread), which meant that you were in prison (and your food was thus provided by the state). Having bread on the board could then be linked to the idea of having been sentenced and sent to a labor camp, where you would no doubt have a lot of gruesome work to do.


* I note, with unmitigated pleasure, that this is the first idiom in our series for which the English equivalent also draws upon a culinary image.

  • It’s amazing to see how the underlying meaning of an expression has changed over the years but the expression stays the same! I love these food expressions. Thanks for another fun one!

  • Dear Clothilde,

    This is a great series of posts.

    As an ex-pat anglo living in France I find “du pain sur la planche” an extremely handy idiom. I use it all the time; to my banker, to my friends, even to my gynecologist (!) when explaining my life here in Burgundy with 3 daughters and 4 vacation rentals.

    They “get” it immediately!

    Allez, I must fly, of course I have “du pain sur la planche” comme d’habitude!

  • yourpapounet

    A close equivalent to “Tu as du pain sur la planche”, is “You have your work cut out for you”. In that case, one of the possible sources is to be found in sewing : all the pieces of material have been cut, but you still have the sewing to do ! Funnily enough, Clotilde’s example related to the same activity…
    How wonderful that in the french expression,the gist of the matter is that the cutting still remains to be done, whereas in the english one it has been done already…

    I have seen the expression “work cut out for you” misinterpreted as “it will be an easy job”, since the cutting has already been done. Not so. For an easy job, we say “Je t’ai mâché le travail” (literally, “I have chewed the work for you”) meaning it’s all been prepared beforehand, you won’t have much to do to complete it. Probably goes back to the time when young and affectionate people chewed the meat for their toothless elders…

  • THIS is an idiom I can relate to at Thanksgiving time. Twenty people are coming for dinner ! So, there is a lot on my plate right now, but it’s a lot of FUN cooking, so who can complain?

  • I like this one – it makes sense and is easily understood.

  • How interesting! I had always assumed the same as you, that the board was a cutting board.

  • Amy

    Such an appropriate phrase for my week! We are coming up to Thanksgiving here, and I have a ton of assignments to grade before the break. I’m looking forward to clearing my plate! (And craving bread a little as well!)

  • I must confess that this French idiom is the one that first turned me on to idioms and began my love affair with French idiomatic expressions.

    It is such a handy one and has the added benefit (as you so cleverly point out) of retaining a culinary sensibility while crossing the cultural divide.

  • piccola

    La seule chose à faire dans ce cas-là, c’est mettre la main à la pâte! :)

  • Joan

    Clotilde, I love the history of sayings..and the added surprise of discovering that ‘oh, so it doesn’t refer to that after all’ moment..

    Your post I read through quickly..enjoying it with speed..then a second read for a gentle enjoyment..

    All the talk of the rush of Thanksgiving in USA..it sounds more hectic than Christmas etc :-)

    Now that bread has been covered, perhaps a saying with ‘circuses’?

    My board seems to be covered in bread..

  • Stephanie in Vancouver

    Although I do not speak French well, I love stuff like this. Here in Canada (or online!), the CBC has a neat little program called, “C’est la Vie” and they have a Word of the Week feature that is in a similar vein (albeit in Quebecois- idioms are very different).

  • Clotilde, I find this utterly facinating. Linguistics is such a dense, strange field in and of it self, but in two languages, one trying to understand the other? It’s well, quite a mouthful. But a good one, I promise :)

  • What a great idea, this “Edible idioms” -series of yours! I’m thoroughly enjoying reading these and hopefully learning a few new words of French as well.


  • Sara

    Clotilde, I am a fairly new reader to your blog, and am enjoying it very much – particularly these ‘edible idiom’ posts. Thank you, keep up the wonderful writing!

  • I love that expression! I’ll have to teach it to my dad when I go home; he has an ongoing notebook he writes French idioms in.

  • Wouter

    That’s funny, that expression can be translated litteraly into the Dutch version (“Brood op de plank hebben”). With us however it still only carries the more positive meaning; it means you have enough income (or savings).

  • My first thought upon seeing the phrase was to interpret it in the original sense, i.e. having enough of what was needed. Just goes to show you can’t take an idiom for granted.

    Great stuff, Clotilde. And thank your papounet for his interesting contributions as well!

  • Bonjour Clotilde, plus crue l’expression equivalente italienne – avere molta carne al fuoco – c’est a dire . avoir beaucoup de viande sur le feu ..
    J’adore cette occasion de comparer les phrases idiomatiques, merci ! :)

  • Katie

    Merci Clotilde! Je suis en train d’apprendre le français et les idioms edibles sont très utiles!!!

  • The French have so many food-related expressions it just shows how central gastronomy is to French life and culture…I love how your blog opens these up for discussion!

  • Catherine

    This expression was on today’s (2-20-09) news broadcast from Europe 1 (I’m in Alaska), and I didn’t know it. About what has to be done in the Antilles….so again, as always, I am SO happy for Choc&Zucch!!

  • Jan

    I am a boulanger working in Paris and I can tell you that la planche is where we put the pâtons before shaping them. When you have over two hundred pieces of dough on the planches that need to be shaped by hand into baguettes in under 30 minutes, well, let’s just say that in the world of the boulanger this expression is far from idiomatic!

  • kiwarashu

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