Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller


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:

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

This idiom appeared in the early nineteenth century*. It is a puzzling one, and the explanation suggested here and there revolves around how inefficient it would be to eat soup with the spoon turned concave side down, that is to say with the back of the spoon.

This explanation seems shaky to me (how is it blunt and deliberate to use a spoon the way it was intended?), and after a little research, I developed a theory of my own: I think the idiom may have originated among soldiers. Army food supplies were limited, so when the daily soup was served, soldiers had to make sure the person serving it wasn’t scrimping, and that they were served full ladles. If they weren’t, they would joke that they’d been served with the back of the spoon, a technique that would indeed yield very little soup. Conversely, not being served with the back of the spoon would mean that the server had been much more deliberate with the serving.

My theory is based on this excerpt in an 1894 issue of the Revue Bleue, which says “et qu’on ne les sert pas, comme disent les troupiers, avec le dos de la cuiller” (and that they’re not served, as soldiers say, with the back of the spoon).

[Pictured above is a risotto spoon. The hole helps prevent the rice from pooling in the cup of the spoon as you stir.]

* The earliest use I’ve found is in a 1809 letter written by Félicité Robert de Lamennais.

  • Sam

    I like this Clotilde!

  • Reuben

    Thanks so much for this series, Clotilde. Always interesting and trying to pronounce the expressions in my mind never fails to make me smile. (I usually end up grimacing or saying it out loud at least once, even though I try not to.)

  • Mrs Redboots

    Hadn’t come across this one before.

    And oh, I want a risotto spoon!

  • 12th Man

    Food-related colloquialisms are a sign of a more evolved species. And thanks so much for the audio link.

  • Annie

    I like this series, and your blog in general! Thanks for sharing all this great stuff.

    Just a thought: I think a good English equivalent would actually be “to beat around the bush.”

  • Christine @ Fresh Local and Best

    This is a neat lesson on French sayings. The risotto spoon is intriguing, this is the first time I’ve seen one like it.

  • Jenn

    Great post! As I am learning French it is so much fun to see your idioms in this series – so interesting about the history behind this one – and yes, I heart my risotto spoon as well, it is a lot easier than using a regular one and having to scrape it clean all the time :)

  • Sprout

    I love your little French lessons. Thank you, my dear. I’m thinking about reading Edith Wharton’s ‘French Ways and Their Meaning.’

    Do you endorse it?

  • Wizzythestick

    Finally an explanation as to why there was a hole in my wooden spoon. I have always wondered:-)

  • Aspiring Vegan

    Ha! Now I know what that spoon I bought the other week is supposed to be for! Thanks Clotilde. I’ve been using it for general stirring and it works well until you get to the serving stage…

  • molly

    Oh, this is great!!

  • Kathie

    I’ve always wondered why there was a hole in the bowl of one of the spurtles in a set a friend gave me. Now I know. Merci, Clotilde!

  • Ladygrey

    I LOVE your edible idioms!

  • Gabriela

    Salut Clotilde!
    I have to say these are so helpful to me, thank you. I am brushing up my French and things like these are what make you speak a foreign language with more authenticity.
    Keep them coming!
    Great blog btw

  • Tracy (Amuse-bouche for Two)

    Love the idiom. The spoon is rather curious.

  • clotilde

    All – Glad you enjoyed this one, and share my enthusiasm for spoons with holes in them! :)

    Annie – Great suggestion, though I want to make sure it’s understood that the equivalent of ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller would be not beating around the bush.

    Sprout – I’m not familiar with this book, so I’m afraid I can’t offer an opinion.

  • Amanda

    The peanuts and cherries version sounds like a winner to me. Also, thanks for the french lession – interesting stuff!

  • The Curious Baker

    I keep thinking that at some point you’re going to run out of these, but you just keep em coming! It’s amazaing how much are cultures are ingrained in food

  • Rita

    Oh, I have a spoon like that and I usually use it to put spaghetti in the hole and let it slide into the boiling water. I think I made that use up in my head…

    And by the way, thanks for teaching us French! And I have and love all your books: the ones you wrote and the one you edited. Merci!

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