French phrase of the Day: Brebis galeuse

French phrase of the Day: Brebis galeuse
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
In France "a scabby sheep" has a wider meaning and often enters the political sphere.

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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