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French expression of the day: Compter pour des prunes

How tasty summer fruits became part of a long-lasting French expression.

French expression of the day: Compter pour des prunes
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Why do I need to know Compter pour des prunes?

Because now you'll have a nice way of describing the times you've done something uselessly. 

What does it mean?

Compter pour des prunes literally means “counting for plums” but it actually means putting a lot of effort into something for very little or no reward.

An English equivalent might be 'for buttons' or you could say your efforts amount to 'a hill of beans' – ie virtually nothing.

You can also use it about yourself – Je compte pour des prunes – which means 'I count for nothing' but better translates as 'Nobody cares about me/takes me into consideration' – so if you're feeling a little self-pitying this is a good phrase, possibly followed by a flounce and a door slam.

But how did the delicious fruits turn into something that had so little value in the French language?

This meaning dates back to the 12th century at the time of the Crusades.

In 1148, the crusaders surrounded Damascus, “using the wood of the orchards of the town to strengthen their positions”, according to Hélène de Champchesnel in Faire la tournée des grands-ducs et 99 autres expressions héritées de l’Histoire de France.

But the inhabitants of Damascus moved the crusaders away, pushing them towards the orchards and beyond.

Forced to abandon the fight, the armies went back to “Jerusalem with for loot only a few baskets of plums. The failure of Damascus marked the end of the second Crusade”, according to de Champchesnel.

Use it like this

Lio, a famous French singer in the 80-90s, made an iconic song out of it, and many French people often refer to it. 

Les brunes comptent pas pour des prunes – Brunettes don't count for nothing

J'ai tout rangé dans l'appartement, et ça compte pour des prunes ! – I cleaned everything in the apartment, and it counts for nothing!
Compter pour du beurre – counting for nothing

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For members


French Phrase of the Day: Syndrome de la bonne élève

Why being a good pupil can sometimes be … bad.

French Phrase of the Day: Syndrome de la bonne élève

Why do I need to know Syndrome de la bonne élève?

Feeling under-valued at work despite doing everything – and more – asked of you? You may have ‘good student syndrome’.

What does it mean?

Syndrome de la bonne élève – pronounced sin-dromm de la bon ell-evv – translates, as we’ve already hinted, as good student syndrome. 

You may well also see it written as syndrome du bon élève (pronounced sin-dromm doo bon ell-evv) – but this is predominantly a female issue.

It refers to someone in the workplace who tries their hardest to work to the rules, do all the jobs asked of them – and more – and yet is overlooked in favour of co-workers who don’t necessarily put in the same hard graft.

It’s not an official ‘syndrome’, but mental health experts do recognise it in many people – particularly women.

It is a hangover, according to features in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, from school days when girls are considered to be harder workers and less trouble than their boy counterparts.

Marie Claire labelled it a “destructive perfectionism … which affects the mental health of the women they become, while preventing them from embracing positions of responsibility’.’

Use it like this

Le syndrome de la bonne élève touche essentiellement les femmes dans le monde occidental. – Good student syndrome mainly affects women in the Western world.

Cette question d’éducation est d’autant plus marquante que le syndrome du « bon élève » affecte généralement les femmes – This question of education is all the more striking because “good student” syndrome generally affects women