Tourner au vinaigre

Vinegar barrels
Vinegar barrels photographed by Rebecca Bollwitt.

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, “Tourner au vinaigre.”

Literally translated as, “turning to vinegar,” it describes a situation or a conversation that’s taking a bad turn and may get ugly. It can be likened to its English cousin “going (or turning) sour.”

Example: “Il a vite changé de sujet avant que la discussion tourne au vinaigre.” “He quickly changed the subject before the discussion turned to vinegar.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:


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

The phrase tourner au vinaigre originally applies to wine, when the action of bacteria makes it ferment and turn into vinegar (this was more likely to occur spontaneously before the generalization of added sulfites in wine), or when the wine simply spoils and its taste turns sour. (In passing, note that the word vinaigre comes from vin aigre, sour wine.)

Because wine is generally considered more noble than vinegar (though I’m sure we all agree it depends on the particular wine and vinegar), the image was gradually adopted to evoke something good turning into something unpleasant.

And if you’re interested in the possibility of making your own vinegar, read the posts my friend Derrick wrote about the process: Old Wine Gone Good, White Wine Vinegar, and Rescuing a Stuck Vinegar Barrel.

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