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French word of the day: Casse-tête

This expression sounds like it could give you a headache, but it (probably) won't.

French word of the day: Casse-tête

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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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.