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.

  • I like that one!! I’m curious – Why is this one for casual use only? Is it not considered proper? Thanks!

  • Rachel

    Do you think it could also be translated as ‘being bogged down’? Pedalling in semolina sound pretty boggy to me!

  • Kate

    This series is so interesting!

    The English equivalent to this idiom is also food-related: “Swimming through treacle”

  • Tabitha – That’s exactly it: it’s an expression that the man on the street uses, but it’s not proper written French.

    Rachel and Kate – Thanks for the alternative translations — I hadn’t thought of them.

  • Dave

    It sounds analogous to being in quicksand.

  • I had never heard of the phrase, “Swimming through treacle” but I like it. Thanks Clotilde for the food for thought!

  • Jillian

    J’ai une petite question. Je dois faire un petit expose sur mon choix de sujet dans un de mes cours de francais, et j’ai pense a utiliser ces idiomes. Pourrais-je utiliser les idiomes et votre explication comme base pour mon expose? Sinon, c’est pas grave du tout. Merci :)

  • Jillian – Bien sûr, tu peux ! Bonne chance pour ton exposé.

  • This idiom totally explains the fight I got into with my friend the other week — while cooking!


    I also used your french idiom from last week in my weekly roundup of the best food blogs. Thanks!

  • I would say “wading through treacle” rather than “swimming”, but it is the same image. I think there is a slight difference between this and Clotide’s french one though: she says there is an element of making things worse by trying to get out of the situation (sinking deeper into the polenta, like quicksand I suppose) whilst with treacle things don’t get worse, you just don’t make progress.

  • These french idioms are great Clothilde! Like mini French lessons, love them. Thanks a mil for sharing.

  • Oh thanks so much. Your idioms never fail to make me smile.

    The German counterpart is actually quite close – ‘sich abstrampeln’ meaning to (fruitlessly) pedal off (some part of yourself).

  • Awesome! Here in Texas, we sometimes talks about molasses when we want to convey being bogged down or gummed up in something sticky and impossible. As in, “that boy is slower than molasses flowing uphill in January.”

  • Ha, ha. I love this one because I like to make my fresh pasta dough with semolina flour and it’s much harder to work with than regular flour! A lot of times, I do really feel like I’m “pedaling in semolina!”

  • piccola

    Salut Clotilde,

    Un gros merci pour cette série, que je trouve tout à fait fascinante – surtout parce que beaucoup des expressions que tu choisis sont différentes de celles qu’on entend et emploie au Canada!

    J’ai pensé t’envoyer certaines de celles qu’on utilise ici, histoire de comparer. Par exemple: être dans les patates, avoir du bacon, avoir les yeux dans la graisse de binnes…

  • I have to tell you that I am just loving the edible idioms series. I have been enamored with France and all things French since I was a small child. I learned the language basics in college. Your lesson in idioms make the language come alive. Tying it all to food even makes it better as I love to cook as well.

  • you forget : “pédaler dans le yaourt”. I also heard : “pédaler dans la cancoyotte”.

  • This one is great! I can’t wait to use it actively the next chance I get, hopefully in French class!

  • Marcia

    I too am enjoying the idioms. It is an area that my Non Native English Speakers and Sp Ed students struggle with. Many take them literal and it makes for some interesting conversation.

  • du côté de Munich, on pédale plutôt dans la choucroute!

  • Elise

    I am so enjoying this series. I learned French in school and am half-French by way of my dad, so I am a pretty decent French speaker. But I don’t know any of these expressions. You really need to live in France and be surrounded by people speaking French all the time to learn this stuff. Very cool!

    This expression reminds me of what we used to say at my old job when the computers were slow: “slogging through mud” – but I like “pedaling in semolina” better!

  • Myriam

    Au Québec, on dit: pédaler dans le beurre… Il faut croire que la semoule ne s’est rendue de notre coté de l’océan que récemment.

  • Clotilde:
    I am posting about this series tonight. So much fun for Francophiles and word geeks like me!

    I found “des vétilles”as a translation for trivia – but I’m not sure that’s totally accurate. Come see what the connection is…


    – Jacqueline

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