French Expression of the Day: à peine

This French expression is one you'll come across regularly but it can be tricky to work out exactly what it means.

French Expression of the Day: à peine
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Why do you need to know à peine?

It can be particularly difficult to work out how to use à peine and at the same time it's one you need to know both in terms of your own speaking and because it is used all the time in French conversation. 
You'll also see it used a lot in written French. 

So, what does it mean?

Literally à peine means 'to pain' or 'to effort'. 

Obviously this doesn't make much sense in English but when used in French conversation, it acts as an adverb meaning 'hardly', 'barely' or 'scarcely'. 

While the literal translation might seem completely useless at first, there is some sense to be made from it. 

Both 'pain' and 'effort' suggest doing something with difficulty so it makes sense that you would 'barely' or 'hardly' want to do it.

For example, if you're out with a friend and ready to have some lunch, they might try and delay it by saying J'ai à peine faim (I'm barely hungry).

And you can also say it in reference to the time. For example: Il est à peine midi (It's barely noon).

While the expression isn't necessarily an informal one, it can be used informally to express disbelief.

For example, Je l’ai mangé moi-même (I ate it myself) – À peine! (Yeah, right!)

For help on how to pronounce peine, check out the video below.

Some other examples: 
Ça s'aperçoit à peine – It's hardly noticeable / You can barely see it.
C'est à peine croyable – It's hard to believe.
Ce chaton a à peine deux mois.This kitten is barely two months old.
J’avais à peine terminé quand elle est arrivé.I’d barely finished when she arrived.

Member comments

  1. You say: “Literally à peine means ‘to pain’ or ‘to effort’.” This isn’t really true. As with all prepositions in French and English, prepositions can have various meanings, depending on context. In both languages, the most common literal meaning is often illogical (e.g. why is someone beaten ‘up’, why do we nod ‘off’, etc), so we shouldn’t expect it to be directly translatable. ‘À’ often means ‘with’, as in ‘à voix haute/basse/douce’, ‘pêcher à la ligne’, so a more comprehensible literal translation of ‘`a peine’ would be ‘with pain’.

  2. The fit with English is a little bit more direct sometimes than the author has described, in my opinion, for “a peine”.

    It is common in English to say, for example,

    “I am at pains to know what to think of this.”

    In French a (the preposition) can often mean “at” in English, so there is a direct correspondence with English for “a peine” sometimes. Just thought this was worth pointing out because it makes “a peine” a little easier to understand for a native English speaker.

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French Expression of the Day: Faire son miel

Surprisingly, this phrase has nothing to do with beekeeping.

French Expression of the Day: Faire son miel

Why do I need to know faire son miel?

Because you might want to describe how you were able to buy a new wardrobe after the airline lost your luggage.

What does it mean?

Faire son miel – usually pronounced fair soan mee-ell – literally means to make your honey, or to make your own honey. In practice, this phrase actually means to take advantage of a situation, usually by turning a profit or to get the most out of a situation. 

The phrase comes from the idea that bees are actually profiteers: they take advantage of flowers in order to make honey. In the 16th century, this phrase was first put into use, and it followed the idea that bees fly up to the innocent flowers and steal their nectar and pollen for their own purposes. People began to use this as a way to describe people who take advantage of others or particular situations for their own benefit, or those who take things that do not belong to them.

Though the phrase is tied to the idea of turning a situation around for your own benefit, it is does not necessarily have a negative connotation. It can be used both for physical profit, or intellectual. It is somewhat similar to the English phrase of ‘making lemonade from lemons’ – taking a bad situation and making something good out of it.

In fact, French actually has another phrase that is quite similar to this one: faire son beurre, which is potentially even older than faire son miel

Use it like this

La compagnie aérienne a perdu nos sacs, avec tous nos vêtements dedans. Nous avons pu faire notre miel de la situation et acheter un nouvel ensemble de meilleurs vêtements avec l’argent de la compagnie aérienne! – The airline lost our bags, with all our clothes inside. We were able to take advantage of the situation by buying a whole new wardrobe on their dime!

Les oiseaux font leur miel de tous les nouveaux arbres plantés dans la ville. Ils profitent de ce nouvel espace pour faire leurs nids. – The birds are taking advantage of all the new trees being planted across the city. They are enjoying the new space to build their nests.

Le politicien a fait son miel des fonds supplémentaires et en a utilisé une partie pour son propre projet de construction. Ils pourraient le mettre en procès pour corruption. – The politician took advantage of the extra public funds for his own construction project. They might put him on trial for corruption.