Les dents qui courent après le bifteck

Photo credit: Louise Pierga, artiste créatrice de concepts visuels

After the dramatic events of this week in Paris, it’s time for some comic relief. One of my favourite French expressions provides plenty of that.

Let’s unpack this phrase in all its illustrative glory.

As you will see from the delightful drawing above, ‘les dents’ are teeth, an easy enough translation for anyone familiar with the dentist. The ones pictured here are an orthodontist’s delight (or nightmare) as they are veering off at an unhealthy forward angle.

Pictured next to the teeth, towards which they might be said to run or ‘courir’, is a piece of beef. For further clarity, the distance needed to ‘parcourir’ is also shown.

Why the French refer to steak as ‘bifteck’ remains a mystery to me. Just as why they refer to roast beef as ‘le rosbif’ and even more curiously, why the Brits are called les rosbifs. Is it revenge for the French being called frogs?

This blog for English learners (in French) provides some good answers to that question: roast beef is a traditional English dish, the British soldiers traditionally wore red coats and the fair-skinned English tend to turn bright red in the continental sun. (Ironically, though, Brits are not known for enjoying meat rare enough to be that red!)

So, back to our analysis of the French expression. The translation is: teeth that run after the roast beef. In other words, buck teeth. I love it because it is so colourful and immediately creates a funny word picture of what is being described. As the French would say, c’est très imagé.

Whether or not this implies that Brits are very hungry or they tend to have buck teeth, I shall not venture to say. You have not grown as long in tooth as I have without learning to keep dangerous opinions to yourself.

By the way, the English expression ‘long in the tooth’ does not translate in French. ‘Avoir les dents longues’ means to be ambitious.

Do you have a favourite French expression?


  1. phildange · April 18, 2019

    I never knew your title expression, honest . In the same mood, calling the Brits “les Rosbifs” is a fact I mostly know and read on the Angloweb, like many other “facts” about the French . I wouldn’t dare to count but, when speaking about the English, someone saying “les Rosbifs” happen like in 10% of occasions, and in my life around me notably less, while from what I can read in the Angloweb (including sports sites) calling the french “frogs” is still very present . The French don’t have the reverse fascination the English demonstrate towards them .

    About your “mystery”, when English words were scarcely introduced in French, these words underwent a process of dull frenchification, like what happened centuries ago the other way round . So “beef steak” became bifteck .

    • MELewis · April 18, 2019

      I have heard both expressions used occasionally and I must say that there is more affection in ‘rosbifs’ than there ever is in ‘frogs’. Neither is a term I would use myself. But I am impressed that you had not heard of my favourite French expression! Sadly, I must conclude it is not that common, as Google did not have that many hits for it either. Thanks for the explanation on the spellings, which make a kind of phonetic sense in French. Educational, as always! 😁

      • Marc · December 2, 2020

        I have used that expression and have known since primary school. It’s not that common but known mostly by the older generation.

        Same as Être rond comme une queue de pelle!

      • MELewis · December 3, 2020

        Now that is a new one for me! Not being ‘rond’ but the expression! 😆 Thanks for chiming in!

  2. midihideaways · April 18, 2019

    Love it!! 🙂

    • MELewis · April 18, 2019

      Thanks, that’s reassuring. I was afraid I might create a diplomatic incident! 😜

  3. 355101pkl · April 18, 2019

    My favorite is “La coq du village”. The local Casanova. It says it all but so beautifully you can picture a strutting cockerel in all his vainglorious plumage.parading himself to the lady hens . My Mauritian wife has so many of these French expressions up her sleeve because its a small Island where so many people know one another .

    • MELewis · April 18, 2019

      I had not heard that one in French. A bit like ‘the cock of the walk’? Not sure if that expression is familiar to you but is also captures the proud strutting male!

  4. 355101pkl · April 18, 2019

    Yes it is a bit and i didn’t think of that one. although I would say there may be a slight difference as to what the expressions evoke. “Cock of the walk ” may convey a temporary feeling of exuberance . Like “I am feeling cock of the walk today”. Whereas” Coq du village” may convey the image of ” Charles Boyer ” type living in a small village , a sort of dapper “ladies man” who takes great pride in his appearance and flirts etc etc.. I haven’t asked my wife as to the precise meaning it would evoke in French. I don’t want her to think I am up to no good. but, there again, she would know that I am no “coq du village ” and laugh still she cried if anyone called me that.

    • phildange · April 18, 2019

      Yes, le coq du village is the guy who seduces all women around .

  5. Ann Lamb · April 18, 2019

    “long in the tooth” That horses’ gums recede and their teeth appear longer as they grow older, owing to their constant grinding of their food is the idea behind this ancient folk phrase, which means one is getting on in years.

    • MELewis · April 22, 2019

      I knew that, and was referring to myself as one of those old grey mares… 😂

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