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

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

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]

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See also on The Local:

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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