For members


French word of the day: Sésame

Yes, this French expression is a magical spell (or a foodstuff).

French word of the day: Sésame
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know sésame?

Because, as well as being a foodstuff, it’s an old expression with mysterious origins that will add a bit of magic to your everyday French.

What does it mean?

Sésame means sesame as in sesame seeds or sesame oil, but it also has an important secondary meaning.

Widely known for as the magical formula “Open Sesame” from the folk tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves – translated by Frenchman Antoine Galland in 1701 – sésame is today a part of French everyday language.

(If you though this phrase belonged to Disney Prince Aladdin, you’re not alone. Disney actually borrowed a scene from the story of Ali Baba in its – much later – animated film.)

While sésame is today generally heard about less exciting things than Ali Baba opening a cave to reveal a hidden treasure, it still means “a magical formula,” according to French dictionary Larousse’s definition, or at least a pass or permission. 

Sésame is a “surefire way to get to something, to have all doors opened,” Larousse states. 

L’Internaute adds that sésame gives access “to that which seemed impossible.”

So when French politicians talk about how the coming Covid pass sanitaire (health pass) will be the sésame allowing an individual to enter a concert, football match or other large events, they are referring to “a magical pass”, just like Ali Baba’s secret password.

“It’s a sésame towards liberty,” Cedric O, the French junior minister for digital affairs, told Europe 1 last week, referring to the upcoming health pass. “Without it, we cannot reopen big gatherings from June 9th.”

Sésame can be anything that provides access to something that otherwise would be out of reach, these days usually involving a certificate, piece of paperwork, password or QR code.

While an ‘open sesame’ exists as a phrase in English, it’s not used with anything like the regularity of the French sésame.

Use it like this

Bientôt il faudra un pass sanitaire pour voyager au sein de l’Europe. Ce sera le sésame indispensable pour traverser les frontières. – Soon we will need a health pass to travel inside Europe. It will be the essential magical pass to cross borders.

Si tu veux couvrir des manifestations, c’est bien d’avoir une carte de presse. Parfois c’est le sésame à montrer à la police en cas de débordements. – If you want to cover protests, it’s good to have a press card. Sometimes this is the gold card to show the police in the event of clashes.

Pour voyager, l’autotest n’est pas suffisant. Le seul vrai sésame reste le test PCR. – Self-tests aren’t sufficient for travel. The only real health pass is a PCR test.

Don’t confuse it with..

Sesame seeds, graines de sésame in French.

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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.