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French expression of the day: Donner du grain à moudre

This expression is key to understanding the latest developments in the French strike saga.

French expression of the day: Donner du grain à moudre

Why do I need to know donner du grain à moudre?

It's an old expression with etymological roots in the very base of French society.

What does it mean?

Donner du grain à moudre means ‘giving grain to grind’ (du grain means ‘grain’ and moudre means ‘to grind’). 

It’s an old expression, dating back to the time when water mills handled the (crucial) job of grinding grain into flour that French people used to make bread. 

In order to make bread you need flour, and to make flour you need grain to grind. Donner du grain à moudre, giving grain to grind, is therefore key in ensuring that the mill can do its job. No grain means no bread, which really means removing the base of any French household – maybe even France's society at large (remember, the French revolution started when people ran out of bread).

How do I use it?

Over the years, the mills died out, but the expression survived.

It is still popularly used in France today, often in the context of describing the offering of a une marge de manoeuvre – flexibility – in a negotiation process. When used in this sense the expression refers to an act by a that permits a stagnated talk or process to move forward.

So let's say you have two parties that are stuck in a conflict – like a strike that has lasted for weeks – and all of a sudden there is some sort of movement, maybe just a little, but enough to spark hope that the mill might start grinding again soon.

Well if so, il y a du grain à moudre – there is grain to grind.

ll y a encore du grain à moudre pour les retraites – there is still grain to grind regarding the pensions, concluded a BFMTV commentator after a minor breakthrough in government talks.


A French expression that means the same is apporter de l’eau au moulin – to bring water to the mill.

Du grain à moudre can also mean ‘food for thought’. There is actually a France Culture show called Du  Grain à moudre that aims to tell the “news in a way that you might not yet imagined (..), far from the fake quarrels and sterile controversies.”

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French Expression of the Day: À poil

Some people prefer to sleep like this during the summer.

French Expression of the Day: À poil

Why do I need to know à poil ?

Because if someone invites you to come to a beach like this and you don’t know the meaning of this expression, then you might be in for a bit of a surprise.

What does it mean?

À poil – roughly pronounced ah pwahl – is an expression that makes use of the French word for an animal’s fur or its coat. A synonym might be fourrure. However, the expression as it has come to be used does not have to do with animals’ coats – it actually means to be naked. 

How a phrase referring to animal’s fur came to signify nakedness goes all the way back to the 17th century and the world of horseback-riding. At the time, one could either ride a horse with a saddle or cover (blanket), or you could ride bareback. The phrase for doing so was monter l’animal à cru (“à cru” meaning ‘bare’ or ‘raw’) which became monter un cheval à poil – to ride the horse with only its fur.

In this case, the horse was seen as naked (lacking its saddle or blanket), and over time the idea of the naked horse transferred over to naked people. 

The phrase is slightly crude – you wouldn’t use it to describe nude artworks – but not offensive, it’s roughly similar to describing someone as “butt naked” or “bollock naked” in English. The more polite way to say this might be “tout nu” (totally naked).

If you are looking for another way to say ‘birthday suit’ in French you could use “en costume d’Adam” (in Adam’s suit – a Biblical reference to the naked inhabitants of the Garden of Eden). 

Use it like this

Je me suis mise pas mal à poil dernièrement, mais ce n’est pas un délire exhibo et, dans la vie, c’est plus compliqué – I’ve been getting naked quite a bit lately, but it’s not an exhibitionist thing, life is more complicated than that. – From an interview about nude scenes with the French actress Virgine Efira.

Je préfère dormir à poil en été. Il fait vraiment trop chaud ! – I prefer sleeping totally naked in the summer. It is really too hot!