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French expression of the day: Tâter le terrain

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French expression of the day: Tâter le terrain
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know tâter le terrain?

Because it’s one of those expressions that show you have a profound understanding of the French language. 

What does it mean?

Tâter is a verb that can means ‘feel’ or ‘sound out’, while le terrain means ‘the ground’ or ‘the pitch’.

Together this becomes the French version of ‘test the waters’.

Tâter le terrain means to evaluate a situation before acting. According to French online dictionary l’Internaute, the expression originated back in the 17th century as a reference to how horses smell, scrape and physically feel out an area unknown to them before attempting a gallop. 

Tâter is something you do when you aren’t quite sure of something and approach it with hesitation. It can be figurative, as in when you’re airing an idea with someone to see how they react, or actually physically feeling something out. 

Tâtonner means ‘to feel out’ or ‘fumble’, like when the lights are out and you touch the walls to find your way to the door.

Use it like this

Tu as tâté le terrain un peu ou pas du tout ? – Did you feel it out a little or not at all?

Ces ‘mesures renforcés’ ne vont pas durer, je te dis. Le gouvernement tâte le terrain avant d’annoncer un confinement strict. – These ‘reinforced measures’ will not last, I tell you. The government is testing the waters before announcing a strict lockdown.

Ils tâtent le terrain avant le match. – They’re feeling out the situation before the game.


Sonder – sound out

Evaluer – evaluate

Explorer – explore

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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.