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French Word of the Day: Funambule

This French word can be used metaphorically to describe the balancing acts that life imposes on us.

French Word of the Day: Funambule
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know funambule?

Because sometimes you need to strike a compromise. 

What does it mean? 

Funambule, pronounced foo-nam-bool, means tightrope but can also be used to mean tightrope-walker. 

France has had a number of famous funambules including Charles Blondin, who famously walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls in 1859. 

In 2021, French funambule Nathan Paulin walked across a 670 metre tightrope between the Eiffel Tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot – the longest such crossing ever achieved in an urban environment. It was the second time he achieved such a feat. 

French tightrope walker Nathan Paulin walks along a 670 meter wire between the Eiffel tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot in 2021.

French tightrope walker Nathan Paulin walks along a 670 meter wire between the Eiffel tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot in 2021. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

In a literal sense, you can can use funambule like this.

Lorsque je suis allé au cirque, j’ai assisté à un numéro de funambule absolument incroyable – When I went to the circus, I saw an absolutely incredible tightrope act

Un funambule se déplace sur un fil tendu à une certaine hauteur du sol – A tightrope walker movers along a tense line at a certain height above the ground 

But you can also use funambule metaphorically, when describing a balancing act between two competing interests. In this case, you would use exercise de funambule or numéro de funambule

La pratique politique se traduit par un exercice de funambule perpétuel, oscillant entre espoir et déception – Politics is a perpetual balancing act, oscillating between hope and despair

Le producteur doit se livrer à un véritable exercice de funambule lors qu’il essaie d’agencer ces divers éléments – The producer must deliver a try balancing act when he tries to bring together these various elements

Jusqu’à quand la commissaire est prête à jouer ce numéro de funambule ? – How long is the officer willing to play this balancing act

Similar expressions 

There are a number of related expressions to describe the act of compromising. 

The most straightforward is faire un compromis – to make a compromise. 

Transiger, réconcilier, mettre d’accord, mettre en harmonie also carry the same meaning. 

But there is an expression that reflects the fact that balancing two competing interests is not always easy. 

Ménager la chèvre et le chou literally translates as: to house the goat and cabbage. But it is used to suggest that someone is trying to please two opposing parties at the same time. 

The logic is that if you leave a goat and a cabbage together, the goat will eventually eat the cabbage. So the idea is that they should be stored separately. 

Nous avons un gouvernement qui pense qu’il peut ménager la chèvre et le chou – We have a government that thinks it can satisfy everyone

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For members


French Expression of the Day: En roue libre

This phrase is not just for cyclists

French Expression of the Day: En roue libre

Why do I need to know en roue libre ?

Because there are two meanings for this expression, and you’ll want to understand the difference.

What does it mean?

En roue libre – roughly pronounced ahn roo lee-bruh –  translates to “in freewheel mode.” Officially, this phrase refers to riding a bicycle with the pedals at rest, and it is often used to describe coasting downhill.

Outside of cycling, however, the phrase has two other figurative meanings, and these are the more likely scenarios you would hear the phrase. 

The first is “freewheeling,” which has a similar meaning to the English term. Someone might say the phrase “partir en roue libre” (to go in freewheel mode) if they are describing a person who has gone off the beaten track or who has gone adrift from the official plan. Other similar terms in English might be ‘a loose cannon’ or ‘off-piste’. This is the version of the expression you are more likely to hear.

When used in this way, the phrase conjures up a mental image more akin to someone who has lost control of the (metaphorical) bicycle and is barrelling down the hill at high speeds. You might hear the expression used in this way when describing a politician who has gone off-script (often in a negative sense). 

The second way en roue libre can be used is to describe a person who is ‘coasting’ – or putting in little effort. You might hear someone describe a coworker who has put in their notice to quit as “rouler en roue libre” – simply coasting by, not straining themselves to do any extra work.

Use it like this

Daniel a donné son préavis pour quitter l’entreprise, et depuis, il se contente de rouler en roue libre, sans faire trop d’efforts. – Daniel gave his notice to leave the company, and since then he has been happy to coast along, not putting in too much effort.

L’homme politique controversé est souvent en roue libre lors des entretiens avec la presse. Il est difficile de suivre le fil de sa pensée car il passe d’une déclaration scandaleuse à une autre. – The controversial politician is often going off-piste during press interviews. It is difficult to follow his train of thought because he jumps from one outrageous statement to the next.

Il est en roue libre depuis qu’il a gagné au loto. – He has been coasting since he won the lottery.