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French expression of the day: Poule mouillée

With a touch of the schoolyard about it, this is a particularly good French insult that is safe for both work and play.

French expression of the day: Poule mouillée

Why do I need to know poule mouillée?

If you have children in French school they may well be flinging this around the playground, but its a good one for adults if they want a quite specific insult.

What does it mean?

It's literal meaning is 'wet hen' but it is really a slang term for coward, wimp, cissy or lily-livered poltroon (although we will admit that last one hasn't been heard around our way for a bit).

It's perhaps slightly childish, but it's widely used and will come in handy if you want to accuse someone of being cowardly.

So if your French friend is looking a bit shifty as the time approaches to go abseiling, you could tell him – Arrête d'être une poule mouillée et fais-le! Stop being such a wimp and do it!

Or when you're heading to the outdoor pool in February you could issue the challenge – Le dernier est une poule mouillée! – Last one in is a chicken!

Does it have any other uses?

In French une poule is a hen or chicken, while poulet refers to the meat of a chicken, so is more usually seen on menus.

As well as being used to signifying cowardice, you might also hear une poule used to refer to a woman. Probably not one to roll out at the feminist society meeting, it is roughly equivalent to calling a woman a 'chick' in English.

It can also be used as a term of endearment for children or close family members, as in ça va, ma poule? You OK, honey?

Another use for this term that we would strongly recommend that you don't use – but you might want to learn to recognise – is as a slang term for the police. In the same way that certain sections of British society refer to the police as 'pigs' French officers are sometimes referred to as les poulets.

The origin of the term is not particularly derogatory – is is believed to come from a time when the Paris police were headquartered on the site of a former poultry market. However these days it is definitely a term of abuse, and not one we would recommend using in front of a French police officer unless you are feeling particularly foolhardy.

For more French words and expressions, check out our French word of the Day section.



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French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

This expression is more than just your last order at the boulangerie.

French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

Why do I need to know tarte à la crème ?

Because if someone uses this phrase to describe you, you should probably be a bit offended.

What does it mean?

Tarte à la crème – pronounced tart ah lah krem – literally refers to a cream filled tart, or a custard tart, in English. However, this expression has more to do than just baking. It is another way of describing something that is boring, predictable or commonplace.

This expression comes straight from Moliere himself. In the 17th century, there was a popular rhyming game called “Corbillon.” The phrase “Je vous passe mon corbillon” (I pass you by corbillon) is said, and then it is followed by “Qu’y met-on?” (What does one put on it?) To keep the rhyme up, people must respond with something ending in an -ON sound.

In the play, “L’Ecole des Femmes” (The School of Wives), one character says the ideal woman would respond to the question with “tarte à la crème” which is obviously the wrong answer. The right answer would be tarte à la citron (lemon tart). Molière did this on purpose to poke fun at the fact that disgruntled fans would send poor actors cream tarts to express their frustration.

It was a way of ridiculing his critics and showing he was unimpressed by their method of showing discontentment at his plays. Over time, the phrase went on to describe things that are commonplace or boring. It is often used to describe entertainment related topics, such as books, movies, or plays.

A synonym for this phrase in French might be banal and in English you might say something is ‘vanilla’ to describe something that is fairly unexciting.

Use it like this

Le film était vraiment tarte à la crème. Je ne recommande pas d’aller le voir au cinéma, vous pouvez attendre de le voir une fois qu’il sera gratuit en ligne. – The movie was really boring. I don’t recommend going to see it at the movies, you can simply wait to see it once it is free online.

Je pense que l’album est tarte à la crème. Elle a pris tellement d’idées d’autres artistes que ce n’est vraiment pas original du tout. – I think the album is predictable. She really took plenty of ideas from other artists and it was not original at all.