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French expression of the day: À fleur de peau

Having 'flower skin' in French may sound like a compliment on your complexion but is not actually very flattering.

French expression of the day: À fleur de peau
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know fleur de peau?

It's a nice and visual way of saying someone is being too sensitive. Plus it's very common.

What does it mean?

Fleur is French for 'flower' and peau means 'skin'.

However, fleur can also mean 'cream' or 'on de surface of', when using the right prepositions: à fleur de means 'on the surface of'.

The expression à fleur de peau, which literally translates to 'on the surface of skin', refers to 'being overly sensitive' or 'fragile'.

Fleur de peau is not the same as goose bumps (chair de poule in French), but rather an expression used figuratively to say that someone is acting 'overly sensitive', 'easily irritated' or 'lashing out'.

French psychologist Catherine Belzung used it like this in an article she wrote for Le Monde:

Il est vrai que nous ne sommes plus les mêmes après ce confinement et que, parfois, nos nerfs sont à fleur de peau, ce qui nous pousse à avoir des réactions émotionnelles très marquées. – It's true that we are no longer the same after this lockdown, and that, occasionally, our nerves are on edge, which pushes us to react with very strong emotions.

It's both similar to and different from being a 'delicate little flower' in English, because à fleur de peau is also commonly used to express someone's (overly) angry reaction.

Use it like this

Je suis à fleur de peau – I'm on the edge.

Often people include nerfs (nerves) to say Avoir les nerfs a fleur de peau – 'having the nerves on edge'.

La colère était à fleur de peau dans la capitale. – The anger was lurking just below the surface in the capital.

C'est la période revision bac, ils sont tous à fleur de peau en ce moment. – It's the exam season, they're all a bit over-sensitive at the moment.


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French Word of the Day: Bordéliser

This French expression is not the kindest, but it will certainly get your point across.

French Word of the Day: Bordéliser

Why do I need to know bordéliser?

Because when things feel chaotic, you might want to use this word.

What does it mean?

Bordéliser roughly pronounced bore-del-ee-zay – comes from the swear word “bordel” which means brothel.

In popular usage, bordel is used to describe a mess or a chaotic environment, and bordéliser turns the bordel into a verb – meaning to make or create disorder, disaster or chaos. 

During periods of unrest in France, you may hear people blame one group for causing the problem by using this expression. Keep in mind that bordéliser is not polite language – the English equivalent might be to “fuck (or screw) something up”.

One popular theory says that the root word bordel comes from medieval French – at the time, sex workers were explicitly not allowed to work near the ports, so they were relegated to wooden huts or small houses – or bordes, in French –  away from the city.

You may also hear another French expression that uses the same root word: “c’est le bordel”. 

This literally translates to “it’s a brothel” but it is used to describe a situation that’s untidy, messy or chaotic, both literally and figuratively as in  ‘what a bloody mess!’ or ‘it’s mayhem!’ or ‘what a disaster!’

Use it like this

Le militant accuse le gouvernement de bordéliser le pays avec sa réforme impopulaire. – The activist accuses the government of “fucking up” the country with its unpopular reform.

Tu as bordélisé l’appartement et notre dynamique de colocation en achetant le singe comme animal de compagnie. Qu’est-ce qui t’a pris ? – You have screwed up the apartment and our roommate dynamic by buying the monkey as a pet. What were you thinking?