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]
— Paul Magnette (@PaulMagnette) February 24, 2021
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See also on The Local:
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)