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French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse

Not all of these will fit in your rucksack.

French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know couteau suisse?

Because it’s an interesting way to describe a person, and a metaphor that the French media seem to be becoming increasingly fond of. 

What does it mean?

couteau suisse is a Swiss army knife – that handy multi-purpose tool you might take on a hiking trip.

Quite logically, you can use couteau suisse as a metaphor to describe people who are particularly adaptable and skilled across the board. It’s the opposite of the English expression ‘one-trick pony’: someone who is a couteau suisse is a real all-rounder. 

It’s important to note, however, that the expression can have both positive and negative connotations. Government appointments, for example, may be criticised for favouring the same adaptable individuals rather than seeking real specialists. In this case, a post occupied by a couteau suisse might – to take the metaphor further – be better served by a more refined or more precisely-targeted tool.

Although the expression is masculine, it can apply to any gender. There’s absolutely no problem with saying elle est un couteau suisse to talk about a versatile woman, for example.

Use it like this

Il est un véritable couteau suisse – He’s a real all-rounder.

Ses qualités de « couteau-suisse » lui ont permis de réussir – His versatile qualities enabled him to succeed.


polyvalent – versatile

aux multiples talents – multi-talented

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For members


French Expression of the Day: La Première ministre

A brand new coinage in the French language that reflects the changing times.

French Expression of the Day: La Première ministre

Why do I need to know la Première ministre?

Because France has one now.

What does it mean?

La Première ministre – usually pronounced lah prem-ee-air mean-east-ruh– translates as “the prime minister,” but this spelling is different from what you might be used to seeing.

This title is feminised, indicating that the prime minister in question is a woman. Under former PMs such as Jean Castex, the masculine title Le Premier ministre was used.

Élisabeth Borne made headlines on May 16th not only because she was appointed as France’s second female prime minister, but also because she will be the first to use the feminisation of the work title: Madame la Première ministre. The female prime minister who held the position before her, Edith Cresson, used the masculine version of the title.

Feminising work titles has been controversial in France, and most titles like “le Premier ministre” have been automatically put in masculine form.

But in 2019, France’s infamous Academie Francaise, which polices the French language and typically resists any sweeping changes to it, changed their stance and said there was “no obstacle in principle” to the wholesale feminisation of job titles. 

Use it like this

Le Président Emmanuel Macron a fait une annonce importante. Élisabeth Borne est la Première ministre. – President Emmanuel Macron made an important announcement: Élisabeth Borne is the prime minister.

“Madame la Première ministre, qui avez-vous choisi pour diriger votre nouveau gouvernement ?” a demandé le journaliste. – “Madame Prime Minister, who have you chosen to lead your new government?” asked the journalist.