Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un

Sucre roux

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, “Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un.”

It means, literally, “breaking sugar on someone’s back,” or engaging in malicious gossip about someone. In other words: backbiting, which, come to think of it, is slightly food-related too, in a cannibalistic sort of way.

For example: “Dès qu’il sortait, ses collègues se mettaient à casser du sucre sur son dos.” (“The minute he was out the door, his coworkers would start breaking sugar on his back.”)

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

According to these sources, this idiom appeared in the late 19th century, and may derive from the older expressions “sucrer quelqu’un”, which meant mistreating someone, and “se sucrer de quelqu’un,” which meant taking someone for a fool. Sugar was then a symbol of wealth; why it was linked to such negative notions, however, is unclear.

  • how interesting! Makes you wonder where these come from and how they originally caught on

  • Andrew

    You have got to love French.
    It’s a wonderful image and one that would never occur in English.
    Thank you for the continuing education of mind and palate.

  • i love hearing about all of these idioms…just one question about this one, though. how does one break sugar? bread, i would understand. sugar? hmmmmm.

  • Cate – I understand the term sugar here as a lump of sugar (or sugarloaf) that you would break into smaller bits by hitting it with a hammer on a hard surface — or someone’s back.

  • achille

    To make it interesting for the French speakers — who are already familiar with these idioms — it would be nice to include the origin of these idioms.
    When did it first appear? Where does it come from?

  • Sounds intriguing! I wanted to let you know you’ve been chosen as one of our top seven “blogs we love” – take a peek.

    BTW, every recipe I’ve made of yours, either from the blog or your cookbook, as been divine!

  • Achille – Actually, the reason why I’m publishing these idioms here and not in the French section of the blog is that they are aimed at non-native French speakers. I have considered including an indication of where the expressions come from, but I am not a linguist, so I would essentially be rewording/translating information I’d have found elsewhere, and I wasn’t sure there was much added value in that. I understand your point, though, and have updated the post with information as to the origin of this expression.

    One Chic Mama – Thank you!

  • Very interesting! I love hearing expressions from other countries. I know some expressions we have make absolutely no sense to people from other countries.

  • Thanks Clotilde for starting these Edible Idioms. It’s so much fun to read and learn about.

  • Alice

    During the eighteenth century sugar came from the sugar plantations in large solid cones so if you wanted some you had to break it off with large pincers. If you wanted sugar in a cup of tea you kept a bit of sugar in your mouth while you drank your tea. Sugar was also so expensive that it was only used by the very wealthy and its use was controlled by the lady of the house, not the cook. So, the phrase breaking sugar on one’s back makestotal’s possibly several centuries in age dating back to when sugar could only be bought in solid pieces and it ‘broke’ one’s back because it was also very expensive to buy.

  • amy

    What is the photo of? I know it is some sort of sugar obviously, but it is dark…? Not brown sugar, but black sugar?

  • Kristin

    I read somewhere that in French the phrase “sugaring the strawberries” means “to die” (like how English-speakers would say “kick the bucket” or “buy the farm.”)

  • Andrew

    Raw sugar cubes in monochrome?

  • Amy – Those are simply lumps of brown sugar, the kind you get in some restaurants here with your coffee.

    Kristin – The expression you refer to is indeed sucrer les fraises, but in fact it means having trembling hands (which would make it easy to sprinkle sugar on a cup of strawberries, one would assume) and/or being senile.

  • I love these edible idioms, and since I’m living in France, I’m starting to use them right away. Thanks for doing this!

  • Thanks for posting these! I’m not living in Montreal anymore, but I’d still love to keep up what little French I have.

  • i’m loving these posts! language and food coming together — my very favorite things! i actually have some food etymology posts on my own blog. i have a nerdy fascination with the relationships between languages, especially when it comes to food words.

  • …. because it was bad for the teeth and caused great pain? :)

    As usual, excellent article!

  • I have to say, I love reading about these foodie idioms. I think that when you’re encountering a new language, idioms can be some of the hardest things to grasp, but add such richness to the experience! Perhaps the “sweet” aspect here refers to the guilty-pleasure moment that you get when gossiping–almost like a sugar rush?

  • Malcolm

    My first thought was to do with the slaves who carried the sugar. If they were having to carry the sugar then those of a higher station (the land owners/growers) would look down on them, thus talking about them with derision or (from the dictionary) as an object of ridicule.

  • Susann

    Clotilde, I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying these edible idioms. I studied french for years and my favorite aspect was learning idioms and incorporating them into my written work. (My spoken work, alas, never evolved very far.) Thank you for doing this and please keep these language lessons coming!

  • Your idiom posts are quickly becoming my favorite part of the site. Great idea Clotilde!

  • Hey, love the blog, love the idioms…I really love using english expressions in french and watching how french colleagues just don’t know a) what on earth I mean and b) how to handle not knowing what on earth I mean.

    I don’t really leave them enough time to react though….tee hee

  • It’s a food for thought week it seems in the blogosphere! I just stumbled upon a fantastic new book called The Food Lover’s Treasury which contains excerpts from the classics, highlighting food as one of the greatest overlooked themes of literature. It’s absolutely fascinating (as well as delightfully cute!)and has inspired me to search out other more-ish phrases.

    If you have any Clotilde, amassed somewhere, do let me know, I love a good bit of old-world prose!

    Another book I recommend is Balderdash & Piffle: One Sandwich Short of a Dog’s Dinner – whilst not all about food, it’s an intriguing look at how many English phrases and idioms have come to be.

  • bean

    When I read the idiom in the title, before reading the (current) meaning, I immediately got the mental image of someone being beaten with a sugar cane. Perhaps because I am more a gardener than a cook, I thought of the plant first, and it made sense to me.

  • Aileen

    If we are speaking about breaking a sugarloaf on someone’s back, I’m sure that all of those sugar crystals would feel like something was biting you in your back. And the nearest English equivalent to “se sucrer de quelqu’un,” would have to be “taking sugar from a baby”.

  • boyao

    “sugar was linked to such a negative notion,” because French was and hopefully still is conscience; sugar is such a luxurious wasteful agro-produce, yet very low nutrition value, think how many hungry slaves suffered to produce this insignificant edible substance for someone’s wealth and sweet tooth, even today, hope this help.

  • btw, amazing photo;)

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