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French expression of the day: Passer à tabac

Confusingly, this has nothing to do with shops or smoking.

French expression of the day: Passer à tabac
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know passer à tabac?

Because it's all over the news right now and can be quite confusing if you translate it directly.

What does it mean?

Passer means ‘to pass’ and a tabac is usually known in France as the local corner store that sells tobacco, magazines and candy. Often the tabac is equipped with a coffee stand and bar with a TV showing the news or today’s horse race.

READ ALSO: Why the tabac is essential to life in France – even if you don't smoke

However, passer à tabac has nothing to do with passing by the tabac to get some smokes.

Passer au tabac really means 'to violently beat someone up'. Other English equivalents are 'to kick in', or 'to beat to a pulp'.

You might have heard it on French radio or read it in the news today, as it's been widely used by French media to describe a video showing police beating up a music producer in Paris last Saturday.

In this case, the term often used is le passage à tabac, so 'the beating up of', referring to the incident that happened.



Oddly for such a distinctive phrase, there's no agreed explanation on how the blameless tabac came to be associated with a violent assault.

Back in the day, French sailors would use a coup de tabac to refer to strong wind gusts at sea. 

According to online dictionary Internaute, tabac took the meaning of coup (a punch) sometime in the 15th century, but it doesn't say exactly how it turned into the full expression passer à tabac.

It may have something to do with the similar-sounding tabasser – ‘to beat up’ or 'clobber'.  

Use it like this
Il y a eu un passage à tabac juste à l'extérieur de mon appartement cette nuit. J'ai du appeler la police. – Someone was beaten up just outside my flat last night. I had to call the police.
Jean s'est fait agressé dans la rue. Trois mecs l'ont passé à tabac parce qu'ils n'a pas voulu leur donner son portable. – Jean was assaulted on the street. Three guys beat him to a pulp because he didn't want to give them his cellphone.
On ne peut plus tolérer les passages à tabac de la part des forces de l'ordre. – We can't tolerate incidents where police beat people up anymore.
Frapper – to punch 
Tabasser – beat up
Rouer des coups – beat up

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French Expression of the Day: C’est le box

This French expression has little to do with storage devices.

French Expression of the Day: C’est le box

Why do I need to know c’est le box?

Because you might have described your adolescent bedroom this way.

What does it mean?

C’est le box roughly pronounced say luh box – comes from the longer expression c’est le boxon, and does not have to do with a container to store things. In reality, c’est le box means either literally or figuratively that something is a mess or disaster.

It is a synonym for the more commonly used French expression c’est le bordel

Both are slang terms that border on being vulgar, are originally references to brothels, and describe disorder or disarray.

The word boxon first appeared in the early 1800s in the form of bocson, which meant cabaret and later “house of tolerance”. Its origins are disputed, but over the past two centuries it has come to be synonymous with a “place of debauchery” and later messiness and disorder.

You can also say “Quel box!” or “Quel Boxon!” to mean “What a mess!” or “What a disaster!”

If you are looking for a less vulgar way to describe a mess, you could instead say “c’est le bazar”.

Use it like this

C’est quand la dernière fois que tu as nettoyé ta chambre ? C’est le box ici. – When was the last time you cleaned your room? It is a disaster in here.

Je ne suis pas la seule personne qui pense que c’est le boxon dans cette ville en ce moment. – I’m not the only person who thinks this city is a mess right now.