French phrase of the day: Je m’en bats le foie gras

French history provides a slew of memorable and bizarre idioms and here we have fished out one that dates all the way back to the Revolution*.

French phrase of the day: Je m'en bats le foie gras
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know je m’en bats le foie gras?

Because it’s a richly historic phrase but also one still in regular use that sums up a very French mood.

What does it mean?

Literally translated, it means “I beat my foie gras” which sounds both pointless and a waste of lunch. But its real meaning sums up a particularly French tradition – defiance of the government, rules or in general people trying to tell you what to do. 

Its use ranges from people out on demos to teenagers shouting at their parents that they have no intention of abiding by borderline-fascist expectations of tidying their room or doing their homework.

It’s not just a simple “I don’t want to” it’s a full expression of rage and defiance, more like “you can take your rule and stick it where the sun don’t shine”.

And its origin is a fittingly rebellious time – the French revolution – but maybe not in the way you would expect.

Once the monarchy was overthrown and the Revolutionaries in government, lots of major changes to everyday life were imposed – and not just relating to the height of certain aristocrats.

The revolutionaries brought in a new calendar, renamed the months of the year, made speaking French compulsory (many areas of France still spoke in local dialects) and attempted to ban the production of foie gras.

Perhaps surprisingly for a man whose lasting reputation is for chopping off heads left, right and centre, Robespierre was also a keen animal rights activist who regarded the production methods of foie gras as unspeakably cruel, leading him to ban the practice in 1793.

This went down extraordinarily badly in south west France, which remains to this day a leading producer of foie gras. Local farmers staged protests – some of which degenerated into riots – in which they waved blocks of illegal foie gras in defiance at government soldiers.

After Robespierre was overthrown and executed in 1794 the ban was quietly dropped and the phrase to “beat your foie gras at someone” moved into the language.

Use it like this

Le gouvernement veut augmenter l’âge de la retraite mais on s’en bat le foie gras  – The government wants to raise the retirement age, but we’ll tell them where to stick that idea

Je viens de lui demander de faire la vaisselle et il s’en battait son foie gras. Les ados ! – I just asked him to do the dishes and he told me where to go. Teenagers!

By Olaf Pirol

*Well done to the readers who spotted this reference to the poisson d’avril (April fish) otherwise known as an April Fool.
That’s right, beating your foie gras is not a real French phrase and if Robespierre did have any views on animal rights history has failed to record them.
If you want a similar but real phrase you could try je m’en bats les couilles – I beat my balls with that, which is a (vulgar) way to say that you just don’t care.

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French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

This expression is more than just your last order at the boulangerie.

French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

Why do I need to know tarte à la crème ?

Because if someone uses this phrase to describe you, you should probably be a bit offended.

What does it mean?

Tarte à la crème – pronounced tart ah lah krem – literally refers to a cream filled tart, or a custard tart, in English. However, this expression has more to do than just baking. It is another way of describing something that is boring, predictable or commonplace.

This expression comes straight from Moliere himself. In the 17th century, there was a popular rhyming game called “Corbillon.” The phrase “Je vous passe mon corbillon” (I pass you by corbillon) is said, and then it is followed by “Qu’y met-on?” (What does one put on it?) To keep the rhyme up, people must respond with something ending in an -ON sound.

In the play, “L’Ecole des Femmes” (The School of Wives), one character says the ideal woman would respond to the question with “tarte à la crème” which is obviously the wrong answer. The right answer would be tarte à la citron (lemon tart). Molière did this on purpose to poke fun at the fact that disgruntled fans would send poor actors cream tarts to express their frustration.

It was a way of ridiculing his critics and showing he was unimpressed by their method of showing discontentment at his plays. Over time, the phrase went on to describe things that are commonplace or boring. It is often used to describe entertainment related topics, such as books, movies, or plays.

A synonym for this phrase in French might be banal and in English you might say something is ‘vanilla’ to describe something that is fairly unexciting.

Use it like this

Le film était vraiment tarte à la crème. Je ne recommande pas d’aller le voir au cinéma, vous pouvez attendre de le voir une fois qu’il sera gratuit en ligne. – The movie was really boring. I don’t recommend going to see it at the movies, you can simply wait to see it once it is free online.

Je pense que l’album est tarte à la crème. Elle a pris tellement d’idées d’autres artistes que ce n’est vraiment pas original du tout. – I think the album is predictable. She really took plenty of ideas from other artists and it was not original at all.