French Expression of the Day: Les bras m’en tombent

It's a phrase that may have spilled from a few lips after the news broke of France’s new travel restrictions for people coming from the UK. Add this one to your phrase book.

French Expression of the Day: Les bras m'en tombent
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know the phrase les bras m’en tombent

Because it is a handy French metaphor dating back to the 17th or 18th century to describe being surprised. You’ll appear extra smart by using a historical term.

What does it mean? 

Literally, it means “my arms fell off”. It describes that sensation of such shock at events that you are unable to act rationally, that – to use an English idiom – might “stop you in your tracks”.

A temporary feeling of helplessness caused by events outside the speaker’s control, symbolised by the image of their arms falling uselessly by their sides. 

There’s another one, too – on a les jambes en coton – to have “cotton legs” that beautifully delivers a similar image.

Think “you could have knocked me down with a feather” and you’re on the same sort of lines. Anyone with Yorkshire grandparents may have heard, “Well… I’ll go to the foot of our stairs”. It’s that level of surprise.

Use it like this

Monsieur le Président, les bras m’en tombent – Mr President, I don’t believe it

Il faut l’avouer, les bras nous en tombent – We’ll admit, we’re amazed [at news of the travel ban]

Similar phrases

On a les jambes en coton – To have cotton legs

Je suis stupéfait – I am amazed / stupified

Je suis accablé – I am overwhelmed

Quelle surprise – What a surprise! (if used non-ironically)

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French Expression of the Day: Un de ces quatres

The perfect response to that invitation you don't really want to say a firm yes to.

French Expression of the Day:  Un de ces quatres

Why do I need to know un de ces quatres?

Because you will probably hear this phrase while trying to make plans with someone in French

What does it mean?

Un de ces quatres – usually pronounced uhn duh say cat-truhs – translates exactly to “one of these fours.” If taken literally the phrase really does not make any sense in French or English. But in actuality, it means “one of these days,” “at some point,” or just “soon.”

This expression is a shortening of “one of these four mornings to come,” which was first used in the second half of the 19th century. It designates a time that is sometime in the near future, but still rather indeterminate.

In French, the number ‘four’ is often used in expressions to refer to imprecise, or small, quantities. Some people say this is because four is the number for the seasons and cardinal points (North, South, East, West), so saying ‘one of these four’ shows a level of ambiguity. But unfortunately we don’t really know exactly how (or why) this phrase arose.

If you want another way of saying this, you can always stick with the regular “un de ces jours” (one of these days).

Use it like this

J’ai été tellement occupée ces derniers temps mais nous devrons prendre un verre un de ces quatres. – I’ve been so busy lately, but we have to grab a drink one of these days.

Il m’a dit qu’il nettoierait la salle de bain un de ces quatres, donc je suppose que ça n’a pas encore été fait. – He told me he would clean the bathroom one of these days, so I guess it hasn’t been done yet.