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French expression of the day: Noyer le poisson

Why on earth would someone try to drown a fish in France?

French expression of the day: Noyer le poisson
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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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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.