A couper au couteau

So thick you can cut it with a knife.

That expression, the French version of which is ‘à couper au couteau’, is often used to describe an accent. A heavy one. Like one in which a typical French politician, ie not a slick new model like Emmanuel Macron, attempts to speak English.

In French, however, it is also used to describe heavy fog, a wine or even an atmosphere. I learned this from Bob, that wonderful online reference for French as it is actually spoken (not for learners as it’s all in French).

And when it comes to cutting with that knife, if you are in France it has to be with an Opinel knife. The Savoie company started making its trusty folding knife with the wooden handle back in 1890 and has been famous for it since. So it is that the Swiss have their army knives and we have our Opinels. If you go on a picnic in France, that slab of sausage or cheese or baguette just has to be sliced with a trusty wooden-handled knife that someone happens to have in their pocket, hopefully one in better condition than ours!

As you can see from my feature photo, we are not good examples of French culture. Our Opinel was moldering in the back of a drawer and is in terrible shape. The tip of the blackened blade appears to have been broken off, possibly from being used as a screwdriver instead of a knife, and the handle bears the logo of another company, so it was probably a giveaway. In fact, it probably belongs to my Beau-père, handyman extraordinaire, so it has been around the block a few times.

Whose English, by the way, sounds a lot like Sarkozy’s. There is no political message in that; Hollande’s anglais was just as bad.

But like the knife itself, though it may be thick at times and dull at others, it is sincere. And it gets the job done.

Do you have an accent? Or a trusty knife?

34 thoughts on “A couper au couteau

  1. First, I wasn’t familiar with Bob, so thanks for that. I suspect the name is a play on words–the dictionary every schoolchild receives is Le Robert. It’s the French Webster’s. Also, the French don’t really do Bob as a nickname. I know many French Roberts but not a single French Bob.
    On one of my early visits to France, well before 9/11, when knives in luggage were no big deal, I bought Opinels for my dad and my brothers. Great products. Also Laguiole, except that you have to make sure they’re made in France and not in China. Somebody forgot to trademark the name.
    As for accents, yes, mine is pretty thick. Happily, it makes everybody swoon. Not unlike a French person speaking English on the other side of the pond.

    1. Very good theorizing on the Bob name — I, too, wondered where it came from but the website gave little hint. The only use of ‘bob’ I know of in French is the hat – un bob. As for the accent, I’m rather jealous. French do love fluent speakers with English accents. Mine is barely there, which makes me feel a fool whenever I make a mistake (often) as I can see the surprise on people’s faces. (No, I’m not backwards, just foreign!) I think you automatically either express yourself better or understand better when you learn a language. Each has its limitations.

  2. I love my opinel!! Unfortunately, all to often I forget it at home, only thinking of it when the plastic knives are starting to break :)!! I should keep one in the glove compartment of the car, or perhaps in the trunk?

    1. That is a very good idea. The car is usually closer to where we would need it. And it avoids the problem of forgetting about it in a bag and having it confiscated, as Susanne shares below! 😢

  3. You are right to include among things “cuttable with a knife” certain qualities of atmospheres too . “Il régnait dans la salle une tension (peur, agressivité, etc.) à couper au couteau” .
    About knives, as well as Opinel is THE eternal reliable knife every French home owns, the top class equivalent has been since 1850 the wonderful Laguiole as francetaste says . Laguiole (pronounced la-yol) is a small town in Aveyron, the sweet and beautiful département . First class craftsmen made super knives with the personal “marque” of the artisan carved on the blade . All Laguiole knives have a metal fly sculpted between the blade and the handle . I have one, bought by a friend’s ancestor a long time ago, and if you treat it right it lasts enough to be used everyday by your great-grandchildren . It was a rather expensive second hand product but worthy when you look at it .
    I use past tenses since Laguiole as a brand never was protected and now you can buy ” laguioles” made in China . In the town itself the making is not as high standard as it was either, like nearly anything in our time . But I am happy to have this masterpiece and I always recommend to wander around the delightful Aveyron . By car and doing wild camping always was my way for my favourite off the beaten tracks pearls of la douce France .

    1. La-yolle? Naturally I’ve been saying it wrong all these years…or maybe not. I found this hilarious slice-of-French-life video in my quest for confirmation (I mean really, it doesn’t make sense with the g-u-i!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9zmfudyfHg
      So it seems there is still debate even among the locals. As for the quality of the knives, I must have only been exposed to the poor imitations as the ones we were given many years ago did not prove to be up to standard. Lucky you to have an original!

  4. I lost my Opinel knife at some point. I couldn’t remember the brand, but now, thanks to you, I have a lead on how to locate a replacement! They are perfect for fruit, fingers (lol!), and anything a good, sharp knife can cut, and they feel just right in the hand.

      1. I am so happy to have been part of reuniting you with your trusty blade! They are so handy and, as you say, perfect for all-purpose uses without being like a concealed weapon. 🙂

      2. Believe me when I say I am happy I opened your post yesterday and found out the name of the knife so I could do a little web surfing to find the exact one I had, if a different wood for the handle. Its easily the nicest fruit knife one can hope to have!

        I secretly hope the old one pops up unexpectedly, you know, the old you always find what you are looking for after you buy its replacement.

  5. I don’t have an Opinel, but Baz recently commented that ‘Even Dexter would be proud of your knife rack’ because I have accumulated so many! (Yet I use the same core ones all the time 🙂 )

  6. I used to carry a small Swiss Army knife until I forgot it was in my purse and it was confiscated at airport security. Grrr. I learned so much in your post – Opinel, Bob (probably better than Google translate), but I wonder if there’s an online Quebecois dictionary? Must look.

    1. Oh dear, too bad about the knife! How many bottles of expensive liquids have I lost at airport security, not to mention nail clippers? Depending on the airport, and how recently they’ve had an incident, those guys seem to take a vicious pleasure in making you part with your loot. Glad you found the post interesting though! As for the online Québecois dictionary, I have no idea but can imagine it would come in handy.

  7. Yup. Got me an Opinel. It lives variously in my hiking bag, my handbag and my car. It came to the US in my hold bag earlier this year and didn’t seem to have alarmed anyone. I don’t think you can really think about being French without one. My daughters have expressed concern about the knife when foraging in whichever bag they have stumbled across it but I can cross my heart and say I have never harmed a living thing with it (though I have harmed some cheeses and breads out walking and of course much fruit 😉)

    1. Yes, you are a good Francaise even if expatriated! (Temporarily, we hope!) 🤗 Still, it occurs to me that the Opinel lacks a corkscrew, even if I imagine there are experts among us who can manage to uncork without!

    2. Osyth; so, you’re still alive and kicking…. 😉 Glad to see
      And you’ve really covered all your tracks with the additional Swiss knife WITH a corkscrew – this made me laugh! And Mel; you’re spot on with your comment too! No picnic is complete without a good knife for
      cutting branches
      making toys for small kids
      cutting off rondelles of a saucisse and cutting the cheese
      taking out a weed with its roots
      using it as a screwdriver….. NOT (but we all did it)
      showing off 🙂

      1. ooops, just touched ‘enter’ – pls add definitely:
        opening a bottle of wine – and if all is well, there is a ‘lifter’ of capsules too for other tastes!

  8. lol – rien de tout. No knife, no accent, or at least not the ‘Strine’ Australians are known for. I guess it comes from speaking both English and Hungarian interchangeably for most of my life.

    1. Ha, ha…that’s interesting you’ve managed to keep a neutral accent by keeping up your first (?) language. I’ve been told my English sounds ‘French’ at times but I certainly can’t hear it!

      1. I can’t hear it myself either. Apparently I don’t sound properly Aussie here, although that’s not saying much as we have so many nationalities. I was surprised though that I sounded ‘foreign’ to my Hungarian relatives when I went back to meet them. Twixt and between.:)

  9. But living near Thiers (The cutlery capital of France – apparently) we need to have Thiers knives (https://www.hommedesbois.fr/nos-couteaux-de-poche/couteaux-le-thiers-sc266.html) We don’t though. However having been shamed by too many Cyclo Voyages, where everyone has their own knife, we invested in two natty picnic sets of knife, fork, spoon and corkscrew all in a handy pocket.(http://armurerie-roussel.fr/coutellerie/101208-joker-set-couteau-pique-nique.html) We rather like them! Now all we have to do is remember to pack them when we go on Voyages (and other picnics)

    1. Remembering to bring them along will surely be the hardest bit! But it’s true that in France, you must by local so you should probably get knives from Thiers to be good citizens. 😅

  10. We had to buy an Opinel before we left Paris but we thought we had lost it on our recent trip to Côte Nord but we found it in one of our bags when we got back… They are indeed good knife. We also bought a Laguiole…

    1. I can’t even think if there is any local equivalent pocket knife in Canada? It seems that traditional things like knife-making are very much anchored in France. Glad you found the Opinel in your bag!

  11. I’m trying to remember if it is an Opinel knife that Julia Child sends to the DeVotos, who complain that they simply cannot buy a decent knife in the States! IT is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

  12. I could say all of this about our Swiss Victorinox knives…. We made somebody very happy, having brought him one with his name engraved!
    Whenever I visit friends in other countries, they always get some form of a Victorinox knife. I have a whole series on the ready for any occasion. My best loved one presently is a kitchen knife with a rounded end and it ‘saws’ effortlessly through absolutely everything. I proved this last weekend when my son was visiting with his dearest. We were chatting and he said something that made me turning my head while continuing to dice herbs, thus cutting off the nail and a bit of my small finger…. in one certain and effortless cut! Now, 4 days later, it doesn’t hurt any longer, it just looks a bit bizarre with the other fingers still having nails 😉

    The debate about accents will never end – I, as a Swiss German spoken Swiss, married to a French spoken Swiss, having lived in several countries and having no fear of making a fool of myself have ‘heard it all’. Here in France I’m often (more often than I like to admit) asked or commented by French that ‘your French is very good for an Anglaise’…. sometimes (rarely) I have been asked if I am Canadian (Québecoise), and although I HAVE lived a short while in Canada, it was in English spoken ‘Traaana’ Toronto and not Montréal or Québec City. When I spoke French with my boss from Tours while living in Devon, UK, I was often chided by him for my lack of proper French: Kiki, you didn’t learn that from me, you got that from your Hero Husband, that’s NOT French! Yesterday, I had a relatively important talk and because I was a bit nervous, I couldn’t even remember my own name and instead of using proper words I babbled like a drunkard with ‘n’importe quoi’ choices of wrong words…. HH however, when he is in Switzerland OR anywhere else, is unanimously praised for his sexy, cool and endearing accent! Quelle injustice! I am never praised for my accent, it’s probably too close to a real language 😉

    1. Kiki, I am impressed that you would brave enough to stand up and speak in public in French! More than this little wimp would do… Who cares about the accent if you are confident enough to ‘babble like a drunkard’ (ha, ha!) in an adopted tongue, you deserve the praise! Whereabouts in Toronto did you live? And when? Who knows, between la Suisse and my hometown, our paths may have already crossed…

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