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French Expression of the Day: 22 v’la les flics

If your driving companion says this to you on the motorway, you might want to slow down.

French Expression of the Day: 22 v’la les flics
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know 22 v’la les flics ?

Because you might want to enjoy some old mobster movies, or alternatively keep up with the slang of the older generation in France. 

What does it mean?

22 v’la les flics – pronounced van-deux vuh-la lay fleeks – literally translates to “22 here are the cops.”

In practice, older generations use this colloquial expression to alert members of a group when perceived danger (typically in the form of police) might be arriving – it is a form of alert.

It’s no longer common among younger generations, but a common place you would hear this expression would be in old mobster movies. A similar expression in English might be shouting ‘Five-O’ to warn of the arrival of police in the United States.

The expression itself originally came into use during the 19th century, so theories that it originates from ‘22’ being the previous number of the police before the current ‘17’ are incorrect, as the telephone did not arrive in France in a significant way until the 1880s. 

The running explanation (though there are many) is that it goes back to the printing industry at the time, when linotype artists – workers in charge of composing the text to be printed – developed this code to warn others that the boss was coming. They would shout 22 (the size of font intended for headlines) to alert their coworkers.

You might also be wondering about the contraction “v’la” – this has a more simple explanation. It is short for voila (here is/are).

Over time, popular usage added les flics (the cops) at the end, as they are symbols of authority. It is still used – though mostly by the older generation.

Use it like this

22, v’là les flics ! Ralentissez, vous allez trop vite et vous allez vous faire arrêter. – Five-O, Five-O ! Slow down, you are going too fast and you will get pulled over.

Un criminel dans un film de gangsters crie “22, v’là les flics”  quand il entend les sirènes de police pendant le braquage de la banque. –  The criminal in the mobster movie yells “here come the cops!” when he hears police sirens during the bank robbery.

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French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

This expression is more than just your last order at the boulangerie.

French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

Why do I need to know tarte à la crème ?

Because if someone uses this phrase to describe you, you should probably be a bit offended.

What does it mean?

Tarte à la crème – pronounced tart ah lah krem – literally refers to a cream filled tart, or a custard tart, in English. However, this expression has more to do than just baking. It is another way of describing something that is boring, predictable or commonplace.

This expression comes straight from Moliere himself. In the 17th century, there was a popular rhyming game called “Corbillon.” The phrase “Je vous passe mon corbillon” (I pass you by corbillon) is said, and then it is followed by “Qu’y met-on?” (What does one put on it?) To keep the rhyme up, people must respond with something ending in an -ON sound.

In the play, “L’Ecole des Femmes” (The School of Wives), one character says the ideal woman would respond to the question with “tarte à la crème” which is obviously the wrong answer. The right answer would be tarte à la citron (lemon tart). Molière did this on purpose to poke fun at the fact that disgruntled fans would send poor actors cream tarts to express their frustration.

It was a way of ridiculing his critics and showing he was unimpressed by their method of showing discontentment at his plays. Over time, the phrase went on to describe things that are commonplace or boring. It is often used to describe entertainment related topics, such as books, movies, or plays.

A synonym for this phrase in French might be banal and in English you might say something is ‘vanilla’ to describe something that is fairly unexciting.

Use it like this

Le film était vraiment tarte à la crème. Je ne recommande pas d’aller le voir au cinéma, vous pouvez attendre de le voir une fois qu’il sera gratuit en ligne. – The movie was really boring. I don’t recommend going to see it at the movies, you can simply wait to see it once it is free online.

Je pense que l’album est tarte à la crème. Elle a pris tellement d’idées d’autres artistes que ce n’est vraiment pas original du tout. – I think the album is predictable. She really took plenty of ideas from other artists and it was not original at all.