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French expression of the day: Tirer sur l’ambulance

In France, shooting at an ambulance is not a very noble thing to do, even though it is fortunately not a literal trend.

French expression of the day: Tirer sur l'ambulance
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know tirer sur l’ambulance?

Because it's not as threatening as it sounds, but it's a good way to get started with French cynicism.

What does it mean?

Literally translated as, ‘to shoot at an ambulance’, this expression is less dramatic than it sounds.

Ambulances are used to transport injured people, so shooting at one of these vehicles is obviously not a nice thing to do, and it's also a surefire way to cause even more damage than has already been done.

The French say tirer sur l’ambulance in a figurative sense to say that someone is having a go at someone else who is already in a weak position.

An English equivalent would be to 'kick someone when they are down'.

The expression is quite recent and was used for the first time in 1974, as the title of an article written by the politician Françoise Giroud. Giroud kickstarted a trend, and soon politicians were using the expression left and right.

Today, tirer sur l’ambulance is widely used, and not just by politicians.

Typically, someone is figuratively shooting at the ambulance when they know that they are in a superior position and use this power in a mean way to exploit the other's weakness.

Say you're family is discussing where to go on holiday next, and mum immediately shoots down dad's idea as a horrible plan, before then going onto complain about how dad never really has any good plans, you could say:

Arrête de tirer sur l'ambulance ! – stop kicking him while he's down!

Use it like this

La vie a été dure avec eux, inutile de tirer sur l’ambulance – Life has been tough for them, there is no need to kick someone when they are down.

Aide-la, au lieu de tirer sur l’ambulance ! – You should help her, instead of making things worse!

Il est vraiment trop facile de tirer sur l’ambulance – It's just too easy to kick someone when they're already down.


S’acharner sur quelqu’un – To set upon somebody

Accabler quelqu’un – To overburden somebody 

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Avoir l’estomac dans les talons

A sensation you might feel around midi after skipping your morning croissant.

French Expression of the Day: Avoir l'estomac dans les talons

Why do I need to know avoir l’estomac dans les talons?

Because you might want to inform your friend waiting in the long restaurant line with you about just how hungry you actually are.

What does it mean?

Avoir l’estomac dans les talons usually pronounced ah-vwar leh-sto-mack dahn lay tah-lonn – literally means to have the stomach in the heels, but it really just means that you are extremely hungry. A British-English equivalent might be ‘my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut’.

As with saying ‘I’m starving’ you wouldn’t use this to talk about people who are genuinely at risk of starvation, it’s just a phrase to complain about being hungry and wanting something to eat.

The expression probably originated around the end of the 19th century, and there are a couple of different ideas about how it came to be.

The first is that it’s intended to paint a picture of your stomach narrowing so much that it goes all the way down to your heels. The second idea proposes that since ‘les talons’ (heels) is a homonym with ‘l’étalon’ (stallion), the phrase might actually be referring to horse meat. You might be so hungry that the only thing that could possibly satiate your empty stomach is a hearty portion of horse meat.

Finally, there’s simply the idea that a person walking a long distance would have severe pain in his heels (or feet), and his hunger is so intense that it is as bad as the pain from walking a long distance.

Regardless of where it comes from, this expression is a sure-fire way to communicate your need for nourishment (or perhaps a nice helping of horse).

 Use it like this

Je ne peux pas attendre plus longtemps dans cette longue file, j’ai l’estomac dans les talons. – I cannot wait in this long line much longer, I’m starving.

Je n’ai pas mangé le déjeuner hier et à 17h, j’avais l’estomac dans les talons. Tout le monde dans le bureau pouvait entendre mon estomac faire du bruit ! – I skipped lunch yesterday and by 5pm I was starving! Everyone in the office could hear my stomach making noise.