For members


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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


French Expression of the Day: À la traîne

Procrastinators might be used to this expression.

French Expression of the Day: À la traîne

Why do I need to know à la traîne ?

Because you probably would prefer to be the opposite of this expression

What does it mean?

À la traîne – roughly pronounced ah lah trahynn – is actually nothing to do with trains.

It means to “lag behind” or to be “at the end” or “at the bottom of the class”. 

It is the opposite of the expression “en avance” which is used to describe the person or group ‘in the front’ or ‘at the top.’

The expression is likely derived from the verb ‘traîner’ in French means ‘to drag’ – usually used when a physical item is trailing behind.

You might see French media make use of this phrase when discussing a topic or theme that has been on the back-burner or less of a priority, as it is often ‘lagging behind’ other items.

Not to be confused with

This sounds similar to the phrase “en train de,” which has a totally different meaning – it means “in the process of” or “in the course of”.

Use it like this

Elle était à la traîne par rapport au reste de la classe dans l’apprentissage de la table de multiplication. – She is lagging behind the rest of the class in learning the multiplication table.

L’article explique que les salaires des enseignants sont toujours à la traîne par rapport à ceux des autres professions, notamment en ce qui concerne les augmentations de salaire. – The article explains that teachers’ salaries are always trailing behind those of other professions, particularly concerning pay raises.