Ne pas savoir si c’est du lard ou du cochon

Basque Piglet

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 idiom is, “Ne pas savoir si c’est du lard ou du cochon” (or: “Se demander si c’est du lard ou du cochon”).

Literally translated as, “not knowing whether it’s lard* or pork**” (or: wondering whether it’s lard or pork), it means not knowing what to think/believe. It is most often used when you’re faced with a fact or statement that comes from an unreliable source, or when you’re not sure whether someone is being serious or pulling your leg.

Example: “Il a un humour très particulier, on ne sait jamais si c’est du lard ou du cochon.” “He has a very peculiar sense of humor, you never know whether it’s lard or pork.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

The idiom’s origin was not entirely clear to me — lard is pork, so what is there to hesitate about? — so I turned to my parents’ copy of Claude Duneton’s Bouquet des expressions imagées.

The book indicates that the expression appeared in the late 19th century, and may be a rural and parodic variation on the 17th-century idiom ni chair ni poisson (neither flesh [=meat] nor fish), which I’ve never heard used in real life but means that something is hard to identify, determine, or classify.

This meat/fish expression refers to the protracted debates between church authorities on what could and couldn’t be consumed during Lent (meat was out of the question and fish had ultimately been accepted, but some foods didn’t clearly belong to either category), and it has cookie-cutter equivalents in English (“neither fish nor fowl” or “neither fish nor flesh”), German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, and Russian, which got me really excited.

The lard/pork variation would then be a way to mock the theologists who engaged in such discussions, by pretending to try and determine whether something is lard or pork, when both are unequivocally banned during Lent anyway.

~~~

* Depending on the context, lard can be translated as lard (a.k.a. pork fat, lard gras, fatty) or as bacon (lard maigre, lean, an arguable term by today’s standards).

** Depending on the context, cochon can be translated as pig (the animal, such as the Basque piglet pictured above) or pork (the meat of the animal). Here, the fact that it appears as du cochon (non-count) rather than le cochon (count) indicates that it refers to the meat rather than the whole animal.

  • http://wine.consejocorp.com Wine Blog

    Maybe they think of pigs as unreliable.

  • http://bitsandpieces.free.fr Jenny

    Do you know why English has different words for living animals and their meat ? (pig-pork, ox-beef, sheep-mutton, calf-veal) The words used for the animals are Saxon words whereas the words used for the meat are French words. After William the Conqueror became king, the lords spoke French but the people spoke the English of that time. And since the lords where the ones who ate the meat and the ordinary people where the ones who looked after the animals, two different words were used.

  • http://bitsandpieces.free.fr Jenny

    Oops. Forgot to say that I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time and I’ve even tried a recipe or two.

  • http://mikethewaiter.com MikeTheWaiterDotCom

    geeze, when I read a comment like Jenny’s I realize how dumb I really am…. mama used to cook with lard… I never do … in this health conscious age… is lard in the mix???
    happy thanksgiving from Indiana, USA mtw

  • http://sweettreatsdani.blogspot.com/ Dani

    I done a French degree so i find your foodie idioms quite interesting…. keep them coming please :)

  • piccola

    Ma mère utilise encore “ni chair, ni poisson”…

  • Sarah

    I find this edible idioms very interesting, since language is something I deal with every day as an editor for an ‘hebdo’ (I find the English word magazine not quite the right term, but the French word ‘hebdomadaire’ quite suits it).
    In Dutch (or rather the way it is spoken in Belgium, expressions can vary from the Netherlands), we also use the Dutch translation of ‘ni chair, ni poisson’ (‘vis noch vlees’).
    There’s also another expression which means more or less the same: ‘mossel noch vis’ or ‘ni moule, ni poisson’ in French and ‘neither mussel nor fish’in English. I’ve heard it used sometimes in reference to teenage girls, meaning that they are neither children nor grown-up women, but something in between that’s not easy to define.
    Greetings from Antwerp!

  • http://www.firefliesofhope.com gwendolyn

    As Clotilde delved in to the root of this idiom (then reading Jenny’s subsequent comment) reminded me of the book, “The Adventure of English”, by Melvyn Bragg.

    Thank you for this blog.

  • Marilyn

    See this,

    Not to mention Shakespeare’s “Why? she’s neither fish nor fleshe; a man knows not where to have her” (1 Henry VI III.iii).

  • http://www.caputmundicibus.com John

    Oh lovely with these french food idioms!
    My girlfriend is french – now I can surprise her with knowing some cool idioms and putting them in every now and then in the right moment! :)

    Thank you!

    /john

  • Mireille

    I understand the phrase to mean
    ‘Is it reliable or is it trickery?’
    Cochon might be a subtle reference to Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais, the judge in Joan of Arc’s heresy trial.

  • Stephni

    In Afrikaans we have ‘nog vis nog vlees’ meaning neither fish nor flesh. Since our languages are so closely related it is probably from the Dutch. According to the ‘Verklarende Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal’ (or HAT!) it could mean ‘without a specific character’ or to someone being half-hearted. I’ve also heard it used in reference to adolescents.

  • david

    Would it make better sense as the difference between fat and meat? Presumably meat would be more valuable than fat?

    Just a thought from someone who really has no idea what he’s talking about.

  • Melinda

    In my family, I guess we take it to the extreme: “Neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat.”

    I love this series!

  • http://theb-line.blogspot.com Amy

    Terrific phrase! I’m thinking of the similar phrases we have in english, but they are too crass to mention here! ;) Thanks for another great lesson!
    Amy

  • http://www.spicedish.typepad.com EB

    I love the idiom posts! They really are fascinating.

  • http://serveitforth.com Barbra

    I am loving this series and will be sure to share it with my French class!

  • Helen

    Re:
    “Se demander si c’est du lard ou du cochon”)I hate to be picky but I would translate the expression as not knowing if it is lard or PIG….porc is the translation for pork. I know I am splitting haits here. LOVE you blog.
    Helen

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Helen – The second footnote explains why I chose to translate cochon as pork here.

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