French Idioms

Pédaler dans la semoule

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 the French idioms featured so far.

This week’s expression is, “Pédaler dans la semoule.”

The literal translation is “pedaling in semolina,” and it means being entangled in a thorny situation, with the added notion that every effort made to get out of it is fruitless, or makes things worse. In short, being confused and overwhelmed, or being in over one’s head.

The image is, I think, clear enough: picture yourself riding a bicycle in a lake of couscous, or grit, and tell us how well you’d do. (It is also used for appliances and devices, computers in particular, when they’re whirring furiously without doing much actual work.)

Note that it is a colloquial expression, to be used in casual conversation only — not in your thesis, nor if you’re having dinner with the French ambassador/ambassadress, though perhaps he/she might think it endearing and fall in love with you. It’s worth a shot.

Example: “Ça fait une heure que j’essaie de résoudre cette équation, et franchement, je pédale dans la semoule.” “I’ve been trying to solve this equation for an hour, and frankly, I’m pedaling in semolina.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

This expression sometimes appears as, “Pédaler dans la choucroute,” or pedaling in sauerkraut, an equally illustrative variation.

Boire du petit-lait

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, “Boire du petit-lait” (sometimes appearing as “Boire son petit-lait”).

The literal translation is, “drinking whey” (sometimes appearing as “drinking one’s whey”) and it means basking in praise or flattery, or taking obvious pleasure in a situation that has turned out to one’s advantage.

Example: “Les invités s’accordèrent à dire que c’était la meilleure blanquette qu’ils aient jamais mangée. Derrière son sourire modeste, la maîtresse de maison buvait du petit-lait.” “The guests agreed it was the best veal blanquette they’d ever had; underneath her humble smile, the hostess was drinking whey.”

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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.

Couper la poire en deux

Poire

Two weeks ago, I had dinner at a French restaurant called La Table d’Eugène, on the other side of the Montmartre hill from me. As my friends and I were handed the menus, we all stopped to comment on their fetching design: on the front and back were dozens of French idiomatic expressions, all relating to food, each of them printed in a different, retro font.

Once we’d ordered our food and asked to keep one copy of the menu, I, as the only native French speaker in our party, went over each of the locutions, trying to shed light on their meaning. It was so much fun — you’ve perhaps noticed how dearly I love words, etymology, and linguistics — that I thought I would start a series on C&Z.

The French language, like all Latin languages, is particularly rife with culinary-inspired idioms, and I will offer one every week or so.

The opening, seasonal expression is, “Couper la poire en deux.”

It means, literally, “cutting the pear in two,” or reaching a compromise: if two people want the same pear, halving it is the most equitable way to settle the dispute.

For example: “Nos deux familles voulaient nous avoir à Noël, donc on a coupé la poire en deux : on va chez ses parents le 24, et chez les miens le 25.” (“Both our families wanted us to come over for Christmas, so we cut the pear in two: we’ll spend Christmas Eve at his parents’, and Christmas Day at mine.”)

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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