The following entries are courtesy of the wonderful 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable', 6th edition, published by William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London in 1962, which I recently came across in a sale of old library books, and which smells so musty I sneeze every time I open it!
Today, we are looking at A to F! All these phrases and words are absolutely not related but taken at random.
Ame damnée, a lost, cursed soul.
Amende honorable. An anglicised French phrase meaning a full and frank apology. In medieval
it was a
degrading punishment inflicted on traitors, parricides and sacrilegious
persons, who were forced to appear at court with a rope around their neck and
stripped to their shirt, and made to beg the pardon of God, the King and the
Après moi le déluge. The thing to say when you don't care about what happens after your death. It is recorded that Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) who was King Louis XV's mistress, said 'Après nous le déluge' when remonstrated about the extravagance of the court's expenses.
Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard). Now who was he and why do every French children know and fear him, a little like the bogeyman? Giles de Retz, Marquis de Laval (no relation to me, fortunately!) is supposed to be the original Barbe Bleue. He lived at Machecoul in
and was accused of murdering six of his seven wives. He was ultimately
strangled and burned in 1440. Charles Perrault later wrote the tale of
Bluebeard in his Comtes du Temps
Billet doux - a short letter, a message of love. Below is the painting 'Billet Doux' by Boucher 1754.
Bon mot - a clever, witty remark.
Bon Vivant. Someone who indulges in all good of the table. A stronger expression is Bon Viveur, which suggests the pursuit of other pleasures!
Brouhaha (I just love that word). A noisy or excited reaction or response. Late 19th century French word.
Cheval de Bataille is someone's favourite subject.
Chevalier d'Industrie is someone who lives by his wits, a swindler, an adventurer.
In his 1750 ' Letters to his Son,
Chesterfield warned against them and urged 'Be cautiously
upon your guard against the infinite number of fine-dressed and fine-spoken
chevaliers d'industrie and aventuriers which swarm at .' I didn't know that one. Paris
Coup d'essai is a trial piece, a practice.
Coup de grâce is the finishing stroke, the stroke or mercy. When a criminal was tortured by the wheel or otherwise, the executioner gave him the 'coup de grâce' to put him out of his misery.
Coup de pied de l'âne. Literally, a kick from the ass's hoof, and figuratively a blow given to a vanquished or fallen man, a cowardly blow, or an insult given to someone who is in no position to retaliate. It is an allusion to 'The Sick Lion' Aesop, which goes like this:
A Lion had come to the end of his days and lay sick unto death at the mouth of his cave, gasping for breath. The animals, his subjects, came round him and drew nearer as he grew more and more helpless. When they saw him on the point of death they thought to themselves: “Now is the time to pay off old grudges.” So the Boar came up and drove at him with his tusks; then a Bull gored him with his horns; still the Lion lay helpless before them: so the Ass, feeling quite safe from danger, came up, and turning his tail to the Lion kicked up his heels into his face. “This is a double death,” growled the Lion.
Only cowards insult dying majesty.
Cri du coeur - a heartfelt plea.
Croquemitaine. A hobgoblin, an evil spirit or ugly monster used by adults to frighten children into good behaviour. A French nursery rhyme went like this: 'Connaissez-vous Croquemitaine, Miton Miton Mitaine, il a deux yeux grands et perçants, une grosse bouche, de grande dents.'
En grande toilette, en grande tenue - dressed for a grand occasion.
En papillotes - in a state of undress, literally sill wearing curl-papers in your hair.
En passant - by the way
Faux-pas - a social blunder, causing embarrassment and loss of face.
And finally, these lovely 'French' phrases:
To take French leave. To leave without permission, without saying good bye to anyone, or to slip away unnoticed. In 18th century
it was a custom to leave an official event or a banquet without saying goodbye
to the host. This phrase was first recorded after the Seven Years' War. There was
a time when there was no love lost between France France
and this kind of backhanded compliment between the two countries were very
The French reverse the 'compliment' and say 'filer à l'anglaise' (to escape like an Englishman). And what about the 'French gout' (venereal disease), or a 'French letter' for a condom (we call it 'capote anglaise' which means 'English overcoat')?
I will be back soon with words and phrases from F to Z, but in the meantime if there are any expressions you particularly like and I have omitted here, please feel free to leave a comment.