Bec et ongle

It is rare to find an exact translation of an expression from one language to another. Which is why ‘se défendre bec et ongle’ is a gift.

‘To fight tooth and nail’ for something is one of those colourful idioms that is immediately understood. When I first heard it used in French, I understood the reference and by extension that ‘bec et ongle’ translated to beak and claw, or tooth and nail.

We can thank the Latin for providing the original expression: unguibus et rostro. It is used as a motto by various organizations of the military, as pictured above, and also the city of Valence, France.

Amshudhagar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

‘Bec’ is a funny kind of word as it refers not just to a bird’s mouth but also to the human ‘beak’. ‘Faire un bec,’ also means to give someone a kiss. It makes me think of something my Dad used to say: ‘a pow in the kisser’, describing a punch in the nose.

There’s also, ‘clouer le bec’ which means to shut someone’s trap. ‘Tomber sur le bec’, to fall flat on your face and ‘rester le bec dans l’eau’ — to be left hanging, high and dry, or in the lurch.

‘Ongle’, on the other hand, has been taken over by the modern love of nail art. I cannot think of this word without remembering my late Belle-mère, whose love of the false nail was legendary in our family. The trouble was that they were always breaking or falling off. After she visited we would find bits of them in remote corners of the house and refrigerator.

As for bec et ongle, I find it interesting that the rooster is often used to illustrate this expression. I’ve posted before about the Coq Gaulois as the symbol of France. And it’s somehow fitting: if there is a people that will fight tooth and nail for something, it is the French.

Is there anything you would you fight for, bec et ongle? Do you have a favourite idiomatic expression?


  1. francetaste · October 31, 2019

    Faire un bec certainly is le mot juste for the duck lips smooch popular among youth on Instagram.
    Re manicures: A French manicure (clear polish, white tips) across the ocean looks a lot like des ongles américains here, although les américains seem to include extensions. I’m hardly an expert, keeping my own short for fast typing. But it’s funny how the same look is translated.

    • MELewis · October 31, 2019

      Mine are short, too! It is funny about the naming thing — but as everything French is chic in the US and everything American is ‘moderne’ in France…maybe it makes sense?

  2. phildange · October 31, 2019

    My pal the rooster . In my grands’ farm I had adopted a very pretty young hen, Paulette, we had a regular flirt and Georges the cock was ready to fight bec et ongles for her . No wonder, with me “il est tombé sur un bec” . Eh oui, ‘tomber sur un bec” is a very common expression you forgot that we use in France when someone with an idea or a plan faces an unexpected obstacle, that can even be a definitive “NO ” for instance .
    On the other hand I’d say “tomber sur le bec” to mean to fall flat is utterly foreign to me . Either it comes from your overseas country either from your Swiss chouchous . Same for “faire un bec” for a quick kiss on the lips which is definitely Quebecker but not really French . Here we say ” faire un bécot” . And as you know we were there first .

    • MELewis · October 31, 2019

      Ha, ha….to fall flat on your face means exactly what you describe with ‘tombé sur un bec’ (You see, even in my heathen English we have expressions that are illustrative rather than literal…😜) As for the ‘un’ vs ‘le’ that is totally impossible for me. The ‘faire un bec’ may well be the Swiss influence. This seems to confirm it! (2.c)

  3. Susanne · October 31, 2019

    What a funny story about your mother-in-law’s fake fingernails. She would have fit right in with the current trend of wild nail art and crazy long nails. I’ll have to remember “clouer le bec” – a handy expression and applicable to moi. We were just in Portugal which also claims the rooster as a symbol. Curious.

    • MELewis · October 31, 2019

      Yes, that’s true about the rooster — I noticed this too last time in Portugal! Yeah, my belle-mère was definitely ahead of the trend on that one. She discovered those nails once in North America and was crazy about them. Even had the little jewel on her baby finger nail. 😂 Needless to say, our styles were not the same! But she was a lovely lady despite (or maybe in part because of) her eccentricities and is sorely missed.

  4. acflory · October 31, 2019

    I get angry at politics or the state of the world or…or…but, honestly? I’d only fight ‘tooth & nail’ for the Offspring or my four-legged kids.

    • MELewis · November 1, 2019

      Yeah, we have to learn to let a lot of shit go in order to be remotely happy in this world. Kids and pets are worth fighting for — and our own well-being!

      • acflory · November 1, 2019

        Absolutely. Too much stress is bad for the health, both physical and mental.

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