For members


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.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


French Expression of the Day: Une vache à lait

This might sound like the cheese for children, but it actually has nothing to do with dairy products.

French Expression of the Day: Une vache à lait

Why do I need to know une vache à lait ?

Because if someone describes a potential investment opportunity like this, you might want to consider it.

What does it mean?

Une vache à lait – roughly pronounced oon vash ah lay – translates precisely to ‘a cow with milk’ or ‘a dairy cow.’ However, this phrase has little to do with farming, cheese, or milk.

In practice, une vache à lait is almost synonymous with the English term “cash cow” – or something or someone that is a moneymaker or source of profit. 

The phrase in French comes from the middle of the 16th century and evokes an image of a cow who is being milked without protest, allowing for the farmer to profit off of it. It was gradually extended to people and business ventures as a way of talking about profitability. 

Sometimes, this expression can have a negative connotation, particularly if a person is being called a vache à lait. This would be akin to saying that they are being financially exploited without realising it. 

Use it like this

L’achat de Snapchat a été une vache à lait pour Mark Zuckerberg et Facebook. – The purchase of Snapchat was a moneymaker for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Les parents ont été accusés d’utiliser leur enfant comme une vache à lait en l’inscrivant à des publicités. Ils ont trouvé cette accusation offensante. – The parents were accused of using their child as a cash cow by signing them up for commercials. They found this accusation offensive.