La course à l’échalote

Gorgeous braided shallots photographed by Denna Jones.

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Browse the list of idioms featured so far.

This week’s expression is, “La course à l’échalote.”

Literally translated as, “the shallot race,” it is used in situations of futile competition, when people strive to outdo one another for vain reasons, in a political context or otherwise. It is somewhat comparable to (though less openly vulgar than) the English expression a pissing contest (pardon my French).

Example: “C’est un peu ridicule, cette course à l’échalote pour savoir qui sera le plus rapide à chroniquer le dernier resto branché.” “It’s a bit ridiculous, this shallot race to see who’ll be the quickest to review the latest hip restaurant.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

(If no player appears, here’s a link to the audio file.)

Julie Amerlynck offers the following explanation in her book Phraséologie potagère.

Originally, course à l’échalote (or, more rarely, course à l’oignon, onion race) was the name of a game in which a kid ran behind another, holding him by the collar and the seat of his pants, pushing him to run to keep up. The reason it was called that is because the term oignon is old slang for buttock*, as seen in “occupe-toi de tes oignons,” which means mind your own, well, business.

From this 1930’s usage, the expression evolved in the late twentieth century to take on a figurative meaning, ridiculing adults engaged in a real-life situation of competition by comparing them to children running around with their hands on one another’s bottoms.

* To put it mildly; this is in fact a totum pro parte synecdoche, but I’ve already typed “pissing” in this post and I have to draw the line somewhere.

  • The French are SO good at using food in their idioms. I love the idea of a shallot race, in fact, visualizing a shallot trying to run is hilarious and really drives the idiom right home.

    For me, this is right up there with “it’s none of your onions.” Thanks for keeping us francophiles in the know!

    • You’re right! “Ce n’est pas tes oignons” and “Occupe-toi de tes oignons” draw on the same slang.

  • Great series! Love it! I’m so done with this shallot race…I like it!

    • I love it when the literal translation sounds like it could totally be adopted into common English speech, and I would love it if it did. After all, many idioms have traveled back and forth between the two languages (the cherry on the cake is one, for instance).

  • I was thinking it would have something to do with the futility of racing to cut the most shallots because one would surely chop off all one’s fingers :) I love your French idioms posts!! I just need a place to use them here in Knoxville, TN!

    • I love your explanation too! And thanks, I’m very glad you enjoy this series.

  • Clare

    I absolutely love your edible idioms!

  • That braided shallot is unbelievable!

  • branché… has that been around for a long time as slang?

    • I would say that the use of “branché” to mean “hip” has been around since the mid-nineties. Just my personal hunch, though. A derogatory variation is “branchouille”, used for things/people/places that are too hip for their own good.

  • Your idioms pour la cuisine made me smile! They are no longer commonly used in the English language. I am going to make a personal effort to bring them back. Any suggestions for what I can get away with?

  • Merci, Clotilde for educating us not only in creative, healthy and tasty, food preparation, but also in idiomatic French food expressions. I just have to remember to start using these “new to me” expressions before I forget them.
    Your posts are always comprehensive but not exhaustive (do I mean not exhausting?).


  • cornflower

    Not knowing the crude meaning of “oignons,” I always thought an “onion race” or “shallot race” had to do with the children being braided together like onions or shallots! And I love the use of “shallot” for the little behinds of wee ones! Surprisingly, I had never connected the children’s game with the use of the term for a futile competition–I had thought that use came from people racing to see whose shallots would grow first, as many American gardeners used to race to harvest the first radishes or peas of the season. Thank you again for this edifying and enjoyable feature!

  • Great idiom, Clotilde. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas! Meilleurs voeux de santé et de bonheur pour 2011!


  • kate

    clotilde, i’m back in france for another six months and your blog has been the first thing i read pretty much daily because it helps so much with the culture shock of the grocery store AND my french improves! the food idioms that you list do not make the french text books. anyways, a big thank you for all your great work. this blog is truly the best resource i’ve found for living in france as an expat.

    • That’s wonderful to hear, Kate, thanks so much!

  • I also try to build-up a food dictionary for Austria for my Romanian users. I think such initiatives are always helpful for some people that don’t speak the language, or speak it not at a native’s level.

  • branché

    “branché” been around since the 80s, heard it used in that sense first time in 87
    Hm… how do I manage to remember these things!?

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