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French expression of the day: Mettre un genou à terre

This French expression is much-used these days, but what does it really mean?

French expression of the day: Mettre un genou à terre
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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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For members


French Expression of the Day: À la traîne

Procrastinators might be used to this expression.

French Expression of the Day: À la traîne

Why do I need to know à la traîne ?

Because you probably would prefer to be the opposite of this expression

What does it mean?

À la traîne – roughly pronounced ah lah trahynn – is actually nothing to do with trains.

It means to “lag behind” or to be “at the end” or “at the bottom of the class”. 

It is the opposite of the expression “en avance” which is used to describe the person or group ‘in the front’ or ‘at the top.’

The expression is likely derived from the verb ‘traîner’ in French means ‘to drag’ – usually used when a physical item is trailing behind.

You might see French media make use of this phrase when discussing a topic or theme that has been on the back-burner or less of a priority, as it is often ‘lagging behind’ other items.

Not to be confused with

This sounds similar to the phrase “en train de,” which has a totally different meaning – it means “in the process of” or “in the course of”.

Use it like this

Elle était à la traîne par rapport au reste de la classe dans l’apprentissage de la table de multiplication. – She is lagging behind the rest of the class in learning the multiplication table.

L’article explique que les salaires des enseignants sont toujours à la traîne par rapport à ceux des autres professions, notamment en ce qui concerne les augmentations de salaire. – The article explains that teachers’ salaries are always trailing behind those of other professions, particularly concerning pay raises.