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French expression of the day: Surveiller comme le lait sur le feu

Whether it's a drunk friend, a lively child or a rapidly spreading virus - this expression is spot on for things that get out of control quickly.

French expression of the day: Surveiller comme le lait sur le feu
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know surveiller comme le lait sur le feu ?

It's common, but also timely for what's happening in France right now.

What does it mean ?

Surveiller comme le lait sur le feu literally translates to ‘to watch like milk on the stove’, but French people use it about 'keeping a very close and vigilant eye on something'.

Milk, as you may have experienced, boils over very quickly if left on the stove for too long.

If you have ever had to wipe sticky milk off your stove and scrape burnt traces off your pan, you will immediately understand the meaning of the expression. 

The idea of surveiller comme le lait sur le feu is that something could go wrong at any moment, and possibly at the very second you are not watching.

The expression can be used about a situation that easily can take a turn to the worse without close surveillance. It captures well the French government's strategy when it comes to closely watching the Covid-19 virus' development in the country, monitoring the rates in detail every day on a local level.

But it can also be used about a person, and it's commonly used to talk about young children.

Use it like this

En tant que baby sitter, on m’a souvent dit de surveiller les enfants comme le lait sur le feu – As a baby sitter, I was often told to keep a close eye on the children.

Les cas de Covid se multiplient en France, le gouvernement surveille les chiffres comme le lait sur le feu – The number of Covid cases keep rising in France, the government is watching the figures extremely closely.

Andréa avait beaucoup trop bu à la fête hier, j'ai passé mon temps à la surveiller comme le lait sur le feu – Andréa drank way too much at last night's party, I had to tail her all evening to make sure she didn't get into trouble.


Surveiller attentivement– To watch like a hawk

Avoir l’œil sur quelqu’un/quelque chose– To keep an eye on someone/something

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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.