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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: Mettre le holà

This might look like a mix of Spanish and French, but it is definitely not Franish.

French Expression of the Day: Mettre le holà

Why do I need to know mettre le holà?

Because you might need to do this if your friends go from laughing with you to laughing at you. 

What does it mean?

Mettre le holà – pronounced meh-truh luh oh-la – literally means to put the ‘holà’ on something. You might be thinking this must be some clever mix of Spanish and French, but ‘holà’ actually has nothing to do with the Spanish greeting. 

This expression is a way to say that’s enough – or to ‘put the brakes on something.’

If a situation appears to be agitated, and you feel the need to intervene in order to help calm things down, then this might be the expression you would use. Another way of saying it in English might be to ‘put the kibosh on it.’

While the origins of ‘kibosh’ appear to be unknown, ‘holà’ goes back to the 14th century in France. Back then, people would shout “Ho! Qui va là?” (Oh, who goes there?) as an interjection to call someone out or challenge them. 

Over time this transformed into the simple holà, which you might hear on the streets, particularly if you engage in some risky jaywalking. 

A French synonym for this expression is ‘freiner’ – which literally means ‘to break’ or ‘put the brakes on,’ and can be used figuratively as well as literally. 

Use it like this

Tu aurais dû mettre le holà tout de suite. Cette conversation a duré bien trop longtemps, et il était si offensif. – You should have put a stop to that immediately. That conversation went on for too long, and he was so offensive. 

J’ai essayé de mettre le holà à la blague sur ma mère, mais ils étaient sans pitié. – I tried to put a stop to the joke about my mother, but they were merciless.