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French Expression of the Day: C’est la Bérézina

Want to inject a little Napoleonic flair into your French?

French Expression of the Day: C’est la Bérézina
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know c’est la Bérézina?

Because if you find yourself in this type of situation, you will certainly want a phrase to complain about it. 

What does it mean?

C’est la Bérézina – roughly pronounced say lah bey-rey-zee-nah –  is a French expression that comes from Napoleon’s time.

It means “a nightmarish scenario” and is often used to describe tense, impossible situations. 

This expression has an interesting history – it refers to the defeat of the Napoleonic army in 1812. 

Napoleon led his troops to Russia, hoping to force Tsar Alexander I to cease trading with Britain. But when the French army found itself forced to retreat from Moscow, tens of thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers died, mostly of cold and starvation. 

During the retreat, the Emperor made a crucial error when attempting to cross over the icy Berezina River (located in modern-day Belarus). Napoleon and his troops soon found themselves trapped with Russian forces on either side. Eventually, the French were able to cross the river – and avoid total annihilation – but at the huge cost of thousands of lives. 

Thus, the expression “c’est la Bérézina” was born – to describe a crucial, yet complicated and nightmarish, situation.

But you don’t need to be trapped by an opposing army to use this, these days it’s used for all sorts of nightmare situations.

Use it like this

Louer un appartement à Paris en tant qu’étranger, c’est la Bérézina – il vous faut un compte bancaire pour obtenir l’appartement, mais il vous faut également une adresse pour obtenir un compte bancaire. – Renting an apartment in Paris as a foreigner is no-win situation – you need a bank account to get the apartment, but you equally need an address to get a bank account.

La pénurie de médicaments pour traiter le rhume et la grippe juste avant le début de la saison du rhume et de la grippe. C’est la bérézina pour les soignants. – The shortage of medications to treat cold and flu illnesses just before the start of the cold and flu season…that’s a nightmare scenario for healthcare workers.


Complaining about nightmare scenarios is a popular sport in France, so there are plenty of alternatives

Cauchemardesque – a nightmare in French is un cauchemar so cauchemardesque is ‘nightmarish’ and can be used for bad situations

La pagaille – this means chaos or shambles so it’s a good way to complain about a situation that is totally chaotic and terrible – for example a major road blocked by striking truckers or a train station on the first day of the holidays

Un vrai bordel – a slightly ruder version is ‘bordel’ which literally means ‘brothel’ but is mostly commonly used to mean a ‘fucked up situation’ – it can be used to complain about anything from transport chaos to a nightmare admin scenario

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French phrase of the Day: Etre en PLS

This one can actually save someone's life.

French phrase of the Day: Etre en PLS

Why do I need to know être en PLS? 

Because it’s not quite as life-threatening as it sounds.

What does it mean 

Être en PLS or je suis en PLS – roughly pronounced zhe swee en pay el ess – literally means ‘I am in the PLS (Position Latérale de Sécurité)’, which is the medical position you put an unconscious victim in. In English you would usually say ‘the recovery position’.

However it’s real meaning is ‘I am tired’ or ‘I am disappointed in a situation’ or sometimes ‘I have a terrible hangover’ – it’s roughly equivalent to saying in English ‘I’m knackered’, ‘I’m broken’ or ‘I’m destroyed’ – but crucially it’s not used for really serious situations that might genuinely destroy your life. It’s an exaggerated complaint. 

This is a phrase common among young people. ‘En PLS‘ is used in its original form by rescue teams trying to save lives, but has recently entered Gen Z’s vocabulary to emphasise a complaint.

Use it like this 

Après cette réunion, je suis en PLS – I’m knackered [British English] after that meeting

J’ai trop bu hier soir, je suis en PLS – I drank too much last night, I’m broken

J’ai perdu mes clés de voiture, je suis en PLS – I lost my car keys, I’m so pissed off. 

You can also say 

Je suis au fond du gouffre – I am at the bottom of the abyss (another dramatic one, it means being disappointed)

Je suis dans le mal – I’m in trouble

Je ne me sens pas bien – I don’t feel good

Je suis KO – I’m exhausted [from the English sporting term KO – knock out]