For members


French Expression of the Day: Couper l’herbe sous le pied

This is not an act of neighbourly kindness like mowing the lawn usually is.

French Expression of the Day: Couper l'herbe sous le pied
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know couper l’herbe sous le pied ?

Because you might have had this happen to you before…or maybe you’ve done it to someone else.

What does it mean?

Couper l’herbe sous le pied – pronounced koo-pay lehrb sue luh pee-ay – translates to ‘to cut the grass under the foot.’ In reality though, the phrase basically means doing something slightly unfair on underhand with the goal of getting ahead of a rival.

You might also say ‘to pull the rug from under their feet’ or ‘steal a march’ on someone.

While somewhat informal of a phrase, you still might see it in newspapers or in reference to high profile people, like politicians during elections. For example, if a politician cuts the grass under their opponent’s foot, then that implies they have taken a less-than-fair – although not in any way illegal or breaking any rules – route to advance in the polls.

Historically in French, ‘grass’ has been used in similar contexts to ‘bread’ as a way of discussing a person’s livelihood or earning potential.

The original usage of the term (back in the 14th century) was to refer to green vegetables and salads. So, metaphorically, to take away ‘l’herbe’ was similar to taking away someone’s daily bread. It is worth noting that these days, l’herbe can also be used to refer to marijuana, so as with most expressions, remember to keep context in mind. 

The current expression, couper l’herbe sous le pied, also bears some similarity to the phrase ‘couper les vivres’ (to cut one’s supplies or provisions).

Over time, it has come to mean removing an opportunity from someone, or taking advantage of a situation in order to get ahead, in an often unfair manner. 

Use it like this

Juste avant les élections parlementaires, le candidat a coupé l’herbe sous le pied de son adversaire en changeant sa position sur le sujet controversé. – Just before the parliamentary elections, the candidate pulled the rug out from under his opponent by changing his position on the controversial topic.

Elle a coupé l’herbe sous le pied de son collègue pour la promotion en informant subtilement son patron que son collègue cherchait également d’autres emplois. – She stole a march on the promotion by telling her boss that her coworker was also looking into other jobs.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Les plus modestes

Surprisingly, this phrase has nothing to do with provocative dress or bragging about your achievements.

French Expression of the Day: Les plus modestes

Why do I need to know les plus modestes ?

Because you might want to understand why “the most modest” are always called out in government announcements and in articles

What does it mean?

Les plus modestes – roughly pronounced lay ploos moe-dests – literally translates to “the most modest.” 

At first glance, this phrase in French might be misleading for anglophones because “modest” is a bit of a false-friend.

In English, one might think of a Jane Austen character who is very respectable and never shows too much skin, or perhaps just someone who is very self-deprecating about their own achievements.

But in the French phrase, les plus modestes means people who are on low incomes or generally don’t have much money.

You might also see the phrase “les ménages modestes” (low-income households). 

You will often hear this term when the French government or press are discussing subsidy plans or budgeting efforts to assist low-income families.

It’s different to les plus fragiles – which is also often used in government announcements but refers to people who vulnerable for health reasons, such as the elderly or people with long-term medical conditions.

Use it like this

Pour protéger les plus modestes, le gouvernement a annoncé une subvention spécifique pour aider à payer l’énergie. – To protect the most vulnerable households, the government has announced a specific subsidy to help pay for energy.

Même avec les interventions du gouvernement, l’inflation touchera surtout les plus modestes. – Even with government interventions, inflation will impact low-income households the most.