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French expression of the day: Bonnet d’âne

Why, in France, you don't want to wear a donkey's hat.

French expression of the day: Bonnet d'âne
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know bonnet d'âne?

Because it's an old expression with a rich backstory that teaches us important lessons about the traditions of the French education system.

What does it mean?

Bonnet d'âne means 'donkey’s hat', but it's actually a metaphor for someone being 'dumb', 'a fool', 'buffoon', 'idiot', 'loser', 'dunce' – either because they do something stupid, or because they are lagging behind others.

This French expression is an old one and quite similar to the old fashioned English expression 'wearing a dunce's hat'.

Porter le bonnet d'âne (to wear the donkey's hat) means being a fool, but it's also used as an direct insult: Quel bonnet d'âne ! – What an idiot!

If France is doing especially poorly in something compared to other countries, the country can said to both be un bonnet d'âne or wear le bonnet d'âne.



Bonnet d'âne originated in French classrooms. Back in the 19th and early 20th century teachers would make pupils wear a special hat as punishment for mischief or poor results at a test or other school work.
Generally the hat was in the shape of triangle, made of paper and sometimes decorated with a donkey's ear sticking out on each side. Often it would have the word âne on its front.
The punished student would be made to wear the hat, sometimes all day, with the very clear message of them being as dumb as a donkey.
Needless to say, it was a pretty humiliating tradition that France scrapped somewhere along the road.

But the expression stuck and wearing a donkey's hat today is commonly used for 'losers'.

Use it like this
La ville de Marseille en a marre d'être le bonnet d'âne de la France ! – The city of Marseille is sick of being the fool of France!
La France est le bonnet d'âne de l'Europe dans la course à la vaccination contre la Covid-19. – France is trailing the race in Europe to vaccinate the population against Covid.
On a surtout envie d'êviter porter le bonnet d'âne dans la bataille contre les rechauffement climatiques. – We especially want to avoid being the worst student in the battle against global warming.

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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.