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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

‘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?

La vache!

Pity the poor cow. They give us milk and cheese, meat and leather, are the source of sustenance and prosperity. They are venerated in some cultures yet treated like so much merchandise and with a flagrant lack of humanity in others. Adding insult to injury, the word ‘cow’ is never used as a compliment.

‘La vache’ expresses surprise in French. Whether a ‘wow’ or a ‘damn’, either positive or negative. It is slang but not vulgar.

However, to say someone or something is ‘vache’ means it’s not nice. Nasty, mean, tough… Arrête d’être vache! Stop being a cow!            

To do something mean to someone is to ‘faire une vacherie’. It seems somehow unjust that the language always attributes the feminine gender to such behaviour. I’ve seen it in both men and women. Note that in French, however, it is ‘une vache’ but ‘un boeuf’.

Until recently I thought these were just different names for male and female. I did not know that milk cows (‘vache laitière’, not to be confused with ‘vache à lait’…) are a completely different subset of the bovine species from beef cattle. Ah, the ignorance of the city mouse!

However, to be really mean and horrible takes being a cow a step further.

In my early days in the French corporate world, a colleague pulled me aside and told me to watch myself around so-and-so. “Attention,” she said, “C’est une peau de vache.

“A cow skin? Whatever does that mean?” I asked. Turns out that this is worst kind of person, the one who will smile to your face and stab you in the back as soon as you’re not looking. Worse, they will go to any length to get what they want.

Yet the poor cow’s hide makes such a lovely chair!

Aside from having their name so often taken in vain, the French cow’s life is not so bad. We have many small, family-run farms where just a few cattle graze in the fields.

Perhaps this is why the most famous of French cows is always smiling. The cheesy laughing cow of course!

Do you have a favourite expression involving cows?

En bisbille

Bisbille en Terrasse by Catherine Haro

The precise origins of the French expression, être en bisbille avec quelqu’un, are mysterious. The word ‘bisbille’ apparently comes from the Italian ‘bisbiglio’ meaning to murmur or whisper. How the meaning evolved in French to mean a quarrel or difference with someone is unclear. And yet it speaks volumes: whispering behind someone’s back is exactly the kind of behaviour that starts such disputes.

What is clear to me is that this ability to pick a fight and turn petty differences into a life-long feud has strong Latin roots. I have observed such behaviour in particular in my Italian and Portuguese friends and in every set of French neighbours.

I’ve posted before about how the French are so good at ignoring those they dislike. They either literally can’t ‘see’ each other (On ne peut plus se voir) or they sulk when they do (Faire la gueule).

I love the above painting, ‘Bisbille en Terrasse’ by French artist Catherine Haro, as it perfectly captures the mood of disgruntled people on a café terrace who seem to be at odds with all of those around them.

As for me, I’ve gotten better at not picking fights and am successfully avoiding conflict with others at the moment.

Are you ‘en bisbille’ with anyone?

Masculin ou féminin?

Masculine or feminine? Figuring out which gender is assigned to which thing is a subject of continual head scratching for the non-native speaker of French.

In this age of gender fluidity and non-binary assumptions, in order to speak French properly it is still essential to ask the increasingly loaded question: is it male or female?

I’ve posted before about gender benders and the impossibility of applying logic or rules to correctly guess whether something is a ‘le’ or a ‘la’.

The thing to remember is that in spoken French, it’s not all that important. Oui, your French native will raise an eyebrow when you say ‘le clé’ (key is feminine) or ‘la poil’ (hair is masculine), but in reality, it hardly matters. The important thing in learning to speak a language is plunging ahead, mistakes be damned. And the only way to learn the gender rules for French words is by rote, regular practice and occasionally getting it wrong.

In written French, however, it is always worth checking. And how much easier is that task in the age of the internet! A quick search reveals the correct spelling and genre of any given word, although the grammar rules are sometimes rather more complex, with certain words varying in gender according to the use. The challenge is that sometimes we forget to check or can’t be bothered or are convinced (like me) that we are right.

There is an expression in French that sums this up perfectly: les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent. This means that while spoken words fly away, anything in writing, even as ephemeral as the online world, remains. In other words, you can get away with almost any oral mistake but once it is written in black and white, it is harder to ignore.

Thanks to FranceTaste for inspiring this post in a recent comment, and to Phildange for keeping us honest!

La flemme

I feel too lazy to post today but thankfully I found a French expression that perfectly sums up my mood: j’ai la flemme.

Seems it’s a common enough condition that there’s a song about it. The tune is almost catchy enough to get my foot tapping into a beat that could even lead me to get up and get going. Almost, but not quite. It’s Sunday after all, and we all deserve a day of rest.

Trying to grasp the origin of this rather intriguing expression has perked up my brain a bit. ‘Avoir la flemme’ comes from the Latin word ‘phlegma’ or flegme in French.

However, what feeling lazy has to do with phlegm, as in mucous, or the quality of being phlegmatic, as the British are known to do while keeping calm and carrying on, has me somewhat perplexed.

I’d like to go further in my exploration of this fascinating topic but la flemme is winning out. Ideas, anyone?