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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

From cheese to disease: 8 phrases for moments of high drama in France

The French language is rich with expressions suited for moments that require a bit of dramatic flair. Here are some of our favourites.

From cheese to disease: 8 phrases for moments of high drama in France
Photo: Siavash Ghanbari, Unsplash

1. En faire tout un fromage

Literally translated as ‘to make a whole cheese about it', en faire tout un fromage means that someone is making a big deal out of nothing. The idea is that turning milk into cheese takes time and effort, so turning milk into cheese unnecessarily means overreacting. 

It's closest English equivalent would be 'to make a meal of something'. It is generally used to tell someone that they should relax.

If your partner is giving you a hard time because you forgot to do the laundry as promised, you could say: oh, ça va, pas besoin d'en faire tout un fromage – oh, come on, no need to make such a big deal about it.

2. En faire tout une maladie 

While en faire tout un fromage is perhaps the most stereotypically French of the en faire tout un..-expressions, seeing as it's about cheese, it is far from the only one.

Very timely for a health crisis, en faire toute une maladie means 'to make a whole disease about it'.

If you are having an argument with someone who is blowing something out of proportion, you can say: Arrête d'en faire toute une maladie ! – Stop making such a huge deal out of it!

Sometimes there's reasons to make a whole cheese out of it.. Photo: AFP

3. Quel cauchemar 

Cauchemar is French for ‘nightmare', and quel cauchemar means 'what a nightmare'.

In France, un cauchemar (a nightmare) can refer to an unpleasant situation, however big or small. If you're trying to fill out your tax returns for the first time and find yourself taken aback by the mountain of French bureaucracy, you could exclaim: Quel cauchemar ! to express your distress.

You can also describe a situation as cauchemardesque, ‘nightmarish': Nous avons même pas eu d'apéritif, c'était cauchemardesque comme soirée. – We didn't even get served an aperitif, it was a nightmarish evening.

4. C’est la cata 

Cata is short for catastrophe, which means 'catastrophe' or 'disaster' – but in France the bar for what can fairly be labelled une cata is not very high. 

Les invités vont bientôt arriver alors qu'on n'a pas encore fini le dîner, c'est la cata totale ! – The guests will be arriving soon and we haven't finished dinner yet, it's a complete disaster!

READ ALSO: The 10 best French expressions for the everyday exasperation of life

During the transport strikes in the winter of 2019, you could rarely be certain that the metro would arrive. Quelle cata ! Photo: AFP

5. C’est le bordel

And if you want something stronger to express just how chaotic things are, this phrase will come in handy.

Literally, c'est le bordel means 'it's a brothel', but this expression is commonly used in spoken French to express annoyance against something or a situation that's untidy, messy or chaotic, both literally and figuratively as in 'what a fuck up!' or 'it's mayhem!' or 'what a disaster!'.

It can describe any kind of disorderly situation: C'est le bordel sur l'autoroute, il y a des bouchons partout – It's chaos on the motorway, there are traffic jams everywhere.

6. Ras-le-bol 

This one is one of those on-point French words with no good English equivalent. It's also quite difficult to figure out how to say it right if you are seeing it for the first time.

Pronounced “ral-bol”, ras-le-bol means 'fed up' and is one of the most common French protest slogans. It features on placards at all kinds of protest in France. Sometimes people make puns out of it, like ras-le-viol, which means 'fed up with rape'.

 

You can however use ras-le-bol about more minor unpleasantries too, like low-quality cafeteria food: J'en ai ras-le-bol des legumes surgelés – I am fed up with frozen vegetables.

Apparently bol used to be French slang for 'ass' so j'en ai ras-le-bol (I'm fed up) literally meant that you needed to relieve yourself (to put it politely). 
 
 
7. Zizanie

French people love a good argument, so much so that mastering dinner table discussions is a crucial skill in France.

Zizanie, another French term with no good English equivalent, sums up in one word a situation where everyone is shouting at once.

It's so French that La Zizanie was the title of an Astérix cartoon series back in the 1970s (the English translation was Asterix and the Roman Agent).

Zizanie often accompanied by semer, a French verb that means 'to sow' (discord). Semer la zizanie means 'to sow discord' or 'drive a wedge' between someone. Tout allait bien jusqu'à ce que tu es venu semer la zizanie ! – Everything was fine until you came stirring it up! 

Quel cauchemar ! People line up to do their shopping in southwestern France on a Saturday in November 2020, after the government eased lockdown. Photo: AFP

8. Je suis au bout de ma vie

If you simply can't take it anymore, you could sigh in exasperation and exclaim: Je suis au bout de ma vie – I am at the end of my life.

Not to be taken literally, this expression is a very common way to express that you are exhausted, tired or displeased with a specific situation. You can use it when you are fed up with the world, whether it be because we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic still, because you are working long hours and desperately in the need of rest – or because you just realised that you have run out of shampoo.

But beware of 'drame'..

While in English 'a drama' refers to a situation that is being blown out of proportion, un drame in French is a bit more serious. 

In English you could qualify your mother and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law fighting over what tablecloths to use at a wedding as 'a family drama'. In France un drame familial generally implies a suicide, a deadly illness, a horrible accident or something similar – what you in English would call 'a tragedy'.

A simple fight over wedding tablecloths would be une dispute, not un drame – unless of course it ended with murder.

 

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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