Être serrés comme des sardines


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, “Être serrés comme des sardines.”

Literally translated as, “being packed together like sardines,” it is a colloquial expression that’s used when people are squeezed into a very small space with absolutely no room to move. For some reason, I remember liking this expression a lot as a child.

Notice that serrés is in the plural form — the singular would be serré(e) — because this expression is always used to liken a group of people to a group of sardines, and never refers to a single individual, however sardine-packed he might feel.

Example: “Ils ont laissé trop de gens monter dans le bus ; on était serrés comme des sardines.” “They let too many people on the bus; we were packed together like sardines.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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

This expression appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it refers to canned sardines, which are indeed packed into the can as tightly as they’ll fit. The early version of the expression often specified serrés comme des sardines en boîte (packed together like canned sardines) but the canned part has become optional over time, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in that form.

A variation of this expression, which I didn’t know myself but found in the dictionary, is serrés comme des harengs (packed together like herring), with the optional addition of comme des harengs en caque, une caque being the barrel in which herring is layered for salt-curing.

And in the example above, if the passengers on the bus are serrés comme des sardines, one could describe that same situation by saying that the bus was plein comme un oeuf (full as an egg).

  • Clotilde, in Polish we have a similar idiom, but sardines are replaced by herrings! Have a nice day!

  • Nick

    We have the same expression in English. RE:sardines

  • Gaby

    This is a great expression!
    And it reminded me that the same concept is compressed into the word for crowded in Turkish “kalabalık” literally meaning “packed like fish”

  • I just love these edible idiom posts — combining your love of food and language is fun for everybody! This expression is used in English, too.

  • Yay! I just learned some more French! My name might imply that I should know a bit more, but…

    Love learning a little something new. Thanks!

  • That’s fascinating, I love the origin of words and phrases. I also love sardines. :)


  • As a child, I played a game called sardines with my siblings and cousins. Everyone would hang out in one room while one person would hide. Everyone would then go looking for that one person, but when you found him/her, you would hide with them…until everyone was spilling out of the hiding place. Sort of a reverse hide-and-seek. Fun to play if you are small :)

  • Hi Clotilde,
    We have a similar phrase in Hebrew.
    I love your edible idioms series (as well as all of chocolate and zucchini!) and following it, I realized there are many edible idioms in Hebrew as well (some are similar, many are different). So, inspired by your series, I just started a similar one at my blog on the science of cooking (in Hebrew). Of-course, you get full credit for the lovely idea.

  • Funny how food is in our speech, our sayings, every little part of our world. Fascinating!

  • You just gave me the biggest craving for Sardines… yummy! Big tray of crunchy little fish with plenty of garlic/lemon dip and a great spot overlooking the water. I miss Cyprus

  • C’est une expression que j’aime particulièrement bien. Bon weekend! Chez nous, c’est un weekend prolongé cette semaine:)

  • Roberta

    In Portuguese (at least in Brazil), we use the same expression!

  • I actually adore sardines!!!

  • FWIW, I don’t know whether this is just an American regionalism, but I was taught “packed IN like sardines” (not together), although the meaning’s about the same.

  • Para Roberta: “Como sardinha em lata” (like sardines in a can) — é certo?

  • We have this expression in America, and I am sure it derived from the historical reference you wrote about. Breaking down the conjugation is very helpful in this example. Thank you.

  • JaM

    I wonder in which language the expression first developed? I read long ago that the reason sardines were packed so tightly in cans is because the oil in which they were packed were more expensive than the sardines themselves. I don’t knmow if that’s still the case, but apparently it was when the expression came about.

  • Ena

    I love food related idioms and especially this one. In Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian the same expression is used; in Sarajevo we usually refer to it when riding in public transport.:)

  • Natasa

    We have the same expression in Croatian!:-) I really like how the same expression exists in so many different languages

  • Agnes

    We also have the same expression in Indonesian! Strange, isn’t it?

  • kim

    One more then: We’ve got a similar saying in Dutch too – “Like herrings in a barrel”
    North sea versus Mediterranean fish maybe? :)

  • I love the variety of fish, dependent on the fish of the local seas. I don’t know why Americans use sardines since I don’t think that’s a primary fish there. There are sure a lot of them here in France though and my French husband loves to eat them head and all. Yuk. cynthia in the French Alps

  • Elise

    As was mentioned before, we have the same expression in the States. On a side note, there is also a children’s game called “Sardines” which is kind of like hide-and-seek, except that one person goes and hides, then everyone else tries to find them. When someone finds the person, they hide there with them and continue waiting for everyone else to find them until everyone is there (often packed in like sardines because there might be a dozen kids squished in trying to hide in a spot only big enough for one or two people). The last person left (the last one to find–or not find–the group) is either out, or is the one who has to be the first to hide in the next round. Ah, fun childhood memories!

  • chloe

    Example: “Ils ont laissé trop de gens monter dans le bus ; on était serrés comme des sardines.” “They let too many people on the bus; we were packed together like sardines.”

    i’m sorry, but this is not quite right. the expression written says “one was packed”, we were packed would be “nous étions serrés…” or simply “nous sommes” considering the avoir in the first part of the sentence is in the present.

  • Chloe – Because this is a colloquial expression, the example sentence is written in the spoken form (like most example sentences given in this series).

    In spoken French, the “nous” form is seldom used, and is replaced by “on”: “on était serrés” is the spoken equivalent of “nous étions serrés”.

    And “Ils ont laissé entrer” is not in the present, it is in the compound past (passé composé). In the coumpound past, the verb “laisser” becomes “avoir laissé”.

    Hope that helps!

  • Maria S.

    It also reminds me of the silly song I’ve heard a few times at parties (New Year’s, a wedding, a child’s party) in France: Patrick Sébastien’s “Les sardines”. The point of the song is to be silly and have silly lyrics, but it’s also appropriate for crowded parties, since the chorus goes:
    Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,
    Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines,
    Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,
    Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates

  • teaberry

    I have also heard people speak (in English) of sleeping like sardines. It requires several people in a too-small bed, with one or more with their head at one end of the bed and the others at the other, (the same way sardines lie in a can). If you remember the four grandparents sharing one bed in _Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_ you get the image. Also called “sleeping heads and tails.”

    • Thanks for that! In French, it’s called “dormir tête-bêche” and I’d always wondered what a good translation might be.

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