French expression of the day: Noyer le poisson

French expression of the day: Noyer le poisson
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Why on earth would someone try to drown a fish in France?

Why do I need to know noyer le poisson?

Because it's one of those French expressions that make absolutely no sense when you translate them directly.

What does it mean?

Noyer is French for 'to drown' and poisson means 'fish'.

The full expression therefore translates as 'to drown the fish', which is a pretty odd thing to try and do, seeing as fish live under water.

The expression originated sometime late in the 19th or early in the 20th Century. Fishermen used it about a strategy where they kept the fish on the hook to wear it out before pulling it up on land.


When used today it does not actually entail either fishing or drowning someone (at least not literally). It means to “confuse a person to make them cave or forget something,” according to French online dictionary l'Internaute.

Noyer le poisson therefore is the act of wilfully distracting the other party in order to achieve a set goal. Just like the fish on the hook, the person becomes so confused or tired that they give in.

A similar English expression would be 'to muddy the waters', which also implies that someone makes it difficult for the other party to see what's what. Another option is 'creating a smoke screen'.

Noyer le poisson frequently pops up in French news articles regarding Brexit, which is canny seeing as one of the main arguments between France and Britain for a post-Brexit deal is rules on fishing.


Use it like this

Boris Johnson est un expert dans l'art de noyer le poisson. – Boris Johnson is an expert in the art of muddying the waters.

À chaque fois que je lui demande de me rembourser, il noie le poisson. – Every time I try to have him reimburse me, he distracts me and talks about something else.

Arrête de noyer le poisson et mange tes brocolis ! – Stop distracting me and eat your broccoli!


Embobiner quelqu'un – bamboozle someone

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