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French expression of the day: Tâter le terrain

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

Synonyms

Sonder – sound out

Evaluer – evaluate

Explorer – explore


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