French expression of the day: Mettre un genou à terre

French expression of the day: Mettre un genou à terre
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
This French expression is much-used these days, but what does it really mean?

Why do I need to know mettre un genou à terre?

It's a pretty versatile expression, but it can be both a very good sign and a very bad one.

What does it mean?

Mettre un genou à terre means 'placing one knee on the ground', but it is a more symbolically loaded expression than just 'kneeling' (s'agenouiller in French).

It can have several meanings, the oldest one dates back to the Bible: se mettre à la merci de quelqu'un – 'putting oneself at the mercy of someone else' – which is a sign of submission.

During the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States, French media were filled with explanations such as Que signifie le genou à terre des manifestants ? – What is the meaning of the protesters' kneeling gesture?

Mettre un genou à terre can also be used in an economic context, for example if you have suffered a heavy financial loss.

In a happier context, mettre un genou à terre can refer to the universal gesture of asking someone to marry you, the Anglo equivalent would be 'getting down on one knee'.

Use it like this

On avait déjà un genou à terre après la première vague, s'il y en a une deuxième, on risque vraiment de mettre la clé sous la porte. – We were already on our knees after the fist wave, if there's a second we really risk having to close down for good.

A cause du Covid, notre clientèle a diminué, ça nous a vraiment mis un genou à terre. – Due to Covid we have lost a lot of customers, it's really hit us hard economically.

Après cette defaite on a un genou à terre, mais on va se relever au prochain match. – We suffered a heavy defeat, but we will make a comeback next game.

Il m'a demandée en mariage à la plage en mettant le genou à terre, c'était tellement romantique. – He asked me to marry him at the beach down on one knee, it was so romantic.

Know that

Être à genoux means having both knees on the ground, so it's a step down from mettre un genou à terre.

For example:

La crise du Covid a mis toute la France à genoux. – The Covid crisis had a crushing impact on all of France.


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