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French phrase of the Day: Brebis galeuse

In France "a scabby sheep" has a wider meaning and often enters the political sphere.

French phrase of the Day: Brebis galeuse
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know brebis galeuse?

The phrase has been flying around recently in one of France's most topical debates.

What does it mean?


Its literal translation is a scabby ewe. Une brebis is a female sheep and also a very delicious type of cheese made using sheep's milk. Galeux or galeuse can mean scruffy but also has a meaning of mangy, scabby or infected.

So une brebis galeuse means a sick or infected ewe, but the phrase is used far more widely than just in farming and veterinary circles.

It's sometimes translated into English as a black sheep, but the key thing about the infected sheep is that it has the potential to infect the whole herd, so perhaps a better translation is a bad apple – one bad thing that has the potential to damage an entire group or organisation.

The French proverb goes 

Il ne faut qu'une brebis galeuse pour gâter tout  le troupeau – it only takes one mangy ewe to infect the whole herd (or to use its English equivalent – it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the whole barrel)

It's in this context that is has been in the news recently – as discussions about police violence rage in France, the debate continues about whether the system is institutionally racist, or whether officers caught on camera attacking people or making racist comments are just quelques brebis galeuses – a few bad apples.

At a recent demo in Limoges one of the protesters told radio station France Bleu: “Quand j'entends certains parlaient de “brebis galeuse dans la police”, je ne comprends pas. Il ne peut pas y avoir de brebis galeuse dans notre police. C'est une institution nationale, elle se doit d'être irréprochable et de montrer l'exemple. Ils doivent bien faire leur métier tous et sans exception.” 

“When I hear some people talk about 'bad apples in the police,' I don't understand. There can't be any bad apples in our police force. It's a national institution, it has to be above reproach and set an example. They must do their job well, all of them, without exception.”

Mouton noir

If you want to refer to yourself or someone else as the 'black sheep of the family' or the general wrong 'un who is always getting into trouble, that's a more straightforward translation of mouton noir.

De retour en prison ? Il est le mouton noir de cette famille, c'est sûr – Back in jail? He's the black sheep of that family, for sure.

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For members


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.