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French expression of the day: Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller

French expression of the day: Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
In French, the bold don't eat with the spoon turned upside down.

Why do I need to know ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller?

This expression is a metaphor that might at first seem a bit obscure, but once you know what it means it's actually quite canny.

What does it mean?

Literally, ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller translates to 'not to go there with the back of the spoon'.

Aller in French is a versatile verb and its meaning changes slightly depending on the context (vas-y can for example mean 'go for it', 'do it,' or 'come on'). 

Here, aller is better translated to 'doing' something, so the more accurate translation would be 'not to do it with the back of the spoon'.

Imagine that you're eating soup with the hollow side of the spoon facing down. Naturally, every time you lift the spoon to your mouth, not much soup will follow the spoon and it will take you a whole lot longer to finish your bowl than if you turned your spoon the right way.

This seems like a pretty obscure metaphor. What's in the bowl? What is it that you're eating that makes you want to eat it with the wrong side of the spoon?

Imagine that you're having a family dinner and know politics is a sensitive issue that those around the dinner table strongly disagree on. Well, if you were to come straight out with your opinion that Emmanuel Macron should resign and then possibly be prosecuted for crimes against polo-neck sweaters, the person seated next to you might say, ho-ho, tu n'y vas pas avec le dos de la cuiller ! – ha, you're not sugar coating things!

Other English versions are 'calling a spade a spade' or 'not tiptoeing around the truth'.

However, ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuiller can also refer to an action, as in 'putting in a whole-hearted effort', 'going all the way', or 'throwing yourself into a task with full force'.

This expression is pretty exclusively used in the negative sense, so for instance you would not say j'y vais avec le dos de la cuiller to say 'I'm being cautious'.

Use it like this

Oh-là-là, quand il parle politique, il n'y va pas avec le dos de la cuiller. – Oh-la-la, when he talks about politics he's not sugar coating stuff.
 
Le défenseur a été très physique sur cette action, il n'y a pas été avec le dos de la cuiller. – The defender was really hands-on there, he went all in.
 
Quand elle décide de se mettre au boulot, elle n'y va pas avec le dos de la cuiller. – When she goes to work, she puts all her effort into it.
 
 

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