Why do I need to know être à la bourre?
If you don’t have time for a conversation but don’t want to be rude, or need to tell your cabbie to step on it, letting somebody know that you’re à la bourre will quickly explain your predicament.
What does it mean?
The word bourre actually means ‘stuffing’ or ‘filling’, derived from the verb bourrer (‘to stuff’, ‘to fill’).
To be à la bourre, however, has little to do with with this basic meaning; it’s actually a colloquial way to say that you’re 'running late' or 'in a hurry', the two usually being related (for more on how the French got from the first definition to the second, see below). It is typically used with the verb être (‘to be’), as in:
Excuse-moi, il faut que je m'en aille, je suis vachement à la bourre.
‘Sorry, I have to go, I’m really running late.’
Si on ne part pas maintenant, on va être à la bourre au travail.
‘If we don’t leave now, we’re going to be late to work.’
Essoufflé et tout rouge, il avait l’air d’être à la bourre.
‘Out of breath and flushed, he looked like he was in a hurry.’
Je suis désolé d’être à la bourre, il y avait un bouchon affreux sur le périphérique.
‘Sorry for being late, there was an awful traffic jam on the ring road.’
How is it pronounced?
This video should be more helpful than a written pronunciation guide. Good luck with those ‘r’s…
Given the logical jump necessary to go from bourre (‘stuffing’) to à la bourre (‘running late’), one can probably guess that the roots of this expression are sort of murky. In the absence of a consensus, the most common explanation is the following:
Etre à la bourre comes from a card game popular in the southwestern French region of Occitanie (around Toulouse and Montpellier), la borra in the local Occitan language.
One theory has it that a player who was behind (and therefore losing money) was a la borra, and that the expression made its way into everyday French.
Another has it that when someone was running late, the people waiting for them assumed that they had gotten caught up playing cards somewhere. Whatever the case was, être à la bourre eventually spread throughout the rest of France, and is heard all over the country today.
Etre à la bourre, while not vulgar, is certainly familiar, so it’s probably more appropriate for a conversation with your co-worker than with your boss.
If you need to say that you’re running late more formally, you can explain that you’re en retard (‘late’) or that you’re pressé (‘in a hurry’).