French word of the day: Casse-tête

French word of the day: Casse-tête
This expression sounds like it could give you a headache, but it (probably) won't.

Why do I need to know casse-tête?

It's the ultimate way of describing a complicated situation.

What does it mean?

Casse-tête can be roughly translated to ‘headache’ in English. Casser means ‘break’ and tête means ‘head’. It refers to the mental pain of struggling with a problem that is difficult to solve, like a very intricate maths task or a complicated puzzle (puzzle is in fact another possible way of translating casse-tête). You think so hard that your head breaks.

There’s a game known as casse-tête chinois, ‘Chinese puzzle’, in France, described by a French online dictionary as a ‘solitary patience game’. Casse-tête chinois certainly looks like something that would inflict a headache. It resembles a Rubik’s cube, made up by several wooden pieces that are supposed to be puzzled together to form a certain shape or pattern. 

Fun-fact: Although it's called Chinese, the very first casse-tête game was actually made in Greece in the 3rd Century, according to the dictionary l’Internaute. The game did however become very popular in China during the 19th century.

How do I use the expression casse-tête?

You can also use it in a less literal sense to describe something that's a pain or a problem.

If you have to enter Paris by car during the strike, you can definitely say: Mais quelle situation casse-tête! – ‘What a headache!’

French media have used it several times to describe the strikes, like here in Le Parisien:

Un casse-tête, une patate chaude, une bombe sociale, qui quelle que soit l'expression utilisée pour qualifier cette mission promet au service RH de la SNCF de longues nuits sans sommeil. – 'A headache, a hot potato, a social policy bomb. Whatever the expression one chooses to describe this task, it means long, sleepless nights for the HR department at the SNCF.'

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brexit has also been described as casse-tête. Here in Le Monde Diplomtique:

Face au Brexit, le casse-tête nord-irlandais -The North-Irish puzzle tormenting Brexit 


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