Mettre de l’huile sur le feu


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 idiom is, “Mettre de l’huile sur le feu.”

Literally translated as, “putting oil on the fire,” it means making a difficult situation even worse, exacerbating a conflict, often purposefully. It is equivalent to the English expression, “adding fuel to the flames.”

Note that it can also appear as, Jeter de l’huile sur le feu” (throwing oil on the fire) or Verser de l’huile sur le feu” (pouring oil on the fire), and that an older form puts the oil dans le feu (in the fire).

Example: “Il aurait pu porter plainte contre son voisin, mais il ne voulait pas mettre d’huile sur le feu.” “He could have filed a complaint against his neighbor, but he didn’t want to put oil on the fire.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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

Note that, because huile is an uncountable noun, the negative form of mettre de l’huile (~putting some oil) is ne pas mettre d’huile (~putting no oil).

This expression dates back to the seventeenth century; in a letter to her daughter in 1673, Madame de Sévigné wrote, “Vos paroles sont tranchantes, et mettent de l’huile dans le feu.” (“Your words are sharp, and put oil in the fire.”)

As you will likely have guessed, this idiom draws upon the flammability of oil, and the idea that, instead of trying to put out the fire like any well-intentioned person would, the subject is in fact adding oil to keep the flames going.

(And while we’re on the subject, perhaps you need a refresher on how to put out a fire?)

  • felix

    exactly the same in german: “öl ins feuer giessen”

  • swan

    it is so interesting to see how many of these expressions exist in Dutch as well, and with the same meaning.
    Any other native speakers of foreign/other languages see the same?

  • Hi-
    I follow your blog. It is beautiful!
    I think this series is great. I also have a food blog, and have also been including Sicilian food phrases on it. Funny!
    Keep up the great work!

  • Marci

    Yes, many are identical in Romanian as well, and this one is *almost* the same: “a pune paie pe foc” meaning “to put straw on the fire”, straw also being flammable though sadly not of the edible idiom variety.

  • Rachel

    I seem to remember reading that Queen Victoria (whose first language wasn’t English) once alarmed one of her ministers by saying that he should ‘pour oil on the flames’ of a conflict with another country, when she actually meant ‘pour oil on troubled waters’. ;)

  • Hmm, I’ve never heard “adding fuel to the flames” but it does remind me of “adding fat to the fire”. This may be a Southern US variation.

  • Nom

    We have the same in Hebrew: “adding oil to the campfire”.

  • Well, in German it’s basically the same: ‘Öl ins Feuer gießen’, meaning ‘to pour oil into the fire’.

    Funny how only the prepositions seem to differ in each language.

  • mimi

    In Italian we say “mettere la benzina sul fuoco” which literally translates as “putting fuel on the fire”.

  • miho

    We have same ideom in Japan,too!
    Ours is: Hi ni abura wo sosogu.
    (Hi=fire abura=oil sosogu=put on)
    Exactly the same!!

  • In English I would say “add fuel to the fire”, and it can be shortened, too: “He shouldn’t have said that – it was fuel to the fire.”

    Inspired by this series, I recently taught my French students some English food idioms: to let someone stew (mariner), to spice things up (pimenter), a recipe for disaster/success, to grill someone, etc. They loved it!

  • Judith

    And in Spanish, the equivalent is “echar más leña al fuego” (add more wood to the fire).

    A fantastic series, Clotilde, and beautifully written (as is the rest of your blog). Thank you!


  • US Steve

    US english[ the correct English I might add] has a saying: “add fuel to the flame”

    make a bad situation worse, make a problem greater

  • Soon I have learnt enough french from you to move to Menton!

    Here we come……

  • You have so many food related idioms in the French language! Très intéressant!

  • Evgenia

    The same exact phrase exists in Russian, too: “Подливать масла в огонь” means “to add oil to the fire”.

  • franko

    hi, clotilde —

    i don’t mean to post here off-topic, but i saw your tweet about vermicomposting, and i wanted to offer my two cents: i’ve been doing it for awhile, and have tried a couple different setups, with varying success. my most recent system – and one i have high hopes & enthusiasm for – is from these people:

    their product seems to be set up so that harvesting the compost is easy, and the small footprint of the system would be more convenient for an apartment, i’m guessing. i have a 3-tray system, but i suppose you could always buy more trays if you find you need more. anyway, i hope this is helpful! always love your blog.

  • All – How fascinating that this one exists in so many languages!

    Franko – Most helpful indeed, thank you for the recommendation.

  • wilson

    to add another one to the list of languages that got the same idea, mandarin also has huo shang jia you, ‘adding oil on the fire’. what a lot of food proverbs the french have; it really shows what you take seriously (which is a good thing)!

  • I love these, Clotilde. Thanks for doing these posts, they are interesting and very useful!

  • Add Lebanese to the list of languages who have this saying! It delivers the message very clearly doesn’t it!

  • Aiyana

    I am curious to know whether the “oil” in this saying was meant to be the sort of oil one uses in a kitchen or not– any idea what the original context would have suggested?

Get the newsletter

Receive FREE email updates with all the latest recipes, plus exclusive inspiration and Paris tips. You can also choose to be notified when a new post is published.

View the latest edition of the newsletter.