French Idioms

Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller

Spoon

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, “Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller.”

Literally translated as, “not going at it with the back of the spoon,” it is a colloquial expression that means acting bluntly and deliberately, without restraint or moderation. It is often used in the context of interpersonal relationships, and especially when someone is particularly plain-spoken about an issue (equivalent then to “not mincing one’s words”).

Note: the French word for spoon can be spelled cuiller or cuillère; both spellings are correct. One should probably choose a spelling and stick to it for the sake of consistency, and when I stop to think about it I prefer the former, but I seem to go back and forth between the two in my writing.

Example: “Tu as lu sa critique du dernier film des frères Coen ? Il n’y va pas avec le dos de la cuiller !” “Did you read his review of the latest Coen brothers movie? He doesn’t go at it with the back of the spoon!”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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Le gratin

Gratin

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, “Le gratin.”

As cooks may already know, gratin* is the generic French term for preparations (often involving vegetables and some sort of binding sauce) cooked in a baking dish in the oven until the surface browns and becomes crusty.

But it is also a colloquial expression that refers to a social elite, an exclusive crowd who distinguish themselves by their social background, their wealth, their elegance, and/or the select field they work in. It is generally used with a subtle mix of contempt and envy by people who are not a part of that circle.

A close equivalent would be the English idiom the upper crust (before it became a popular name for pizzerias and bakeries).

Though it was originally a matter of social class only, usage of this expression now extends beyond that to consider one’s connections, talent (perceived or real), and popularity: an up-and-coming artist, for instance, can belong to the gratin without being particularly wealthy (yet) or of noble origin. Because of this, the term is often qualified further to specify the traits of the group in question: le gratin du cinéma for the movie crowd, le gratin parisien for the Parisian high society, le gratin mondain for socialites, etc.

It is frequently used with tout (tout le gratin = all the gratin, the whole gratin), which serves to point out that these groups tend to adopt a herd behavior.

Example: “Je suis allée à son vernissage, tout le gratin de la presse était là.” “I went to her vernissage, the whole gratin of the press was there.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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Être comme un coq en pâte

Coq

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, “Être comme un coq en pâte.”

Literally translated as, “Being like a rooster in dough,” it means feeling cosy and pampered, being in a state of absolute contentment, with one’s every need catered to. I’ve seen it likened to the English idiom, “being in clover” or “like pigs in clover,” but I understand the latter refer primarily to financial comfort, whereas the French expression implies a more general sense of physical and spiritual well-being.

Example: “Quand il est chez sa grand-mère, il est comme un coq en pâte.” “When he’s at his grandmother’s, he’s like a rooster in dough.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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Être dans le pâté

Pâté

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, “Être dans le pâté.”

Literally translated as, “Being in the pâté,” it means feeling drowsy and out of it, usually in the morning after too much partying and/or not enough sleeping. It is a slang expression, not vulgar but definitely not elegant, so I don’t really suggest you use it — slang is the trickiest thing to get right in a foreign language — but I offer it here in case it comes up in conversation.

Example: “Elle était tellement dans le pâté qu’elle est partie en oubliant son téléphone.” “She was so badly in the pâté that she left and forgot her phone.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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Ne pas mâcher ses mots

Giraffe
Chewing giraffe provided by Wildlife 2008.

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, “Ne pas mâcher ses mots.”

Literally translated as, “Not chewing one’s words,” it means expressing one’s opinion plainly and bluntly, with no concern for how it’s going to be received. It is equivalent to the (similarly food-oriented) English expression, “Not mincing words.”

Example: “Les journalistes adorent l’interviewer parce qu’il ne mâche pas ses mots.” “Journalists love to interview him because he doesn’t chew his words.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

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