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FRENCH WORD OF THE DAY

French Expression of the Day: La montagne qui accouche d’une souris

This phrase might sound anatomically impossible, but it happens more often than you'd realise.

French Expression of the Day: La montagne qui accouche d'une souris
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know la montagne qui accouche d’une souris?

Because this is a fun way to add in French fables to everyday conversation.

What does it mean?

La montagne qui accouche d’une souris – roughly pronounced lah mon-tahn-ya key ah-coosh doon sohr-ees –  translates precisely to “the mountain who gives birth to the mouse.” 

The expression does not literally have to do with mountains and mice – instead it comes from French folklore, and refers to obtaining mediocre or ridiculous results after embarking on an ambitious project. In English you might say it’s a let down, or perhaps a somewhat similar phrase might be ‘all mouth and no trousers.’

Dating back to the 17th century, la montagne qui accouche d’une souris was made famous by Jean de la Fontaine, a fable-writer and poet. In the fable “La montagne qui accouche” (The mountain who gives birth) everyone is expecting that the mountain will give birth to a city ‘larger than Paris’ and are subsequently shocked when it births a small mouse. 

It is meant to be a metaphor for expecting a lot and then obtaining something small or insignificant. You might see this phrase used as a critique for a policy or plan that was meant to create lots of change, but in reality has had little impact.

Use it like this

Ils se sont vantés que le nouveau programme social aiderait des millions de personnes, mais presque personne ne le connaît ou n’a été aidé par lui. Est-ce la montagne qui accouche d’une souris? – They boasted that the new social program would help millions of people, but hardly anyone knows about it or has been helped by it. Is this a case of all mouth and no trousers.

C’est la montagne qui accouche d’une souris lorsque seulement cinq personnes se sont présentées à la fête alors qu’il devait y en avoir cinq cents. – The party was a massive let-down when only five people showed up when there were meant to be five hundred.

Member comments

  1. This is the first time I’ve encountered the largely British idiom “all mouth and no trousers.” Funny. Of course, in the US – and especially in “cowboy” country – we’d say someone was “all hat and no cattle.”

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For members

FRENCH WORD OF THE DAY

Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

From 'Monsieur Dupont' to a 'Flasher', via an unsavoury metaphor involving flies and a word for meat-lovers, here's a roundup of some of our favourite French words and expressions of the day.

Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

Every weekday, The Local publishes a French word or phrase of the day, with the emphasis on slang, sayings, colloquialisms and (sometimes) swearing. Our aim is to introduce readers to the words and phrases that they won’t learn in French class, but they definitely will hear during the course of everyday life in France.

We’ve been publishing a daily word since 2018, so by now we have a fairly hefty back catalogue – you can find it HERE. Members of The Local can also sign up to our Word of the Day mailing list and get each day’s word or phrase delivered straight to your mailbox.

Here’s a selection of the words and phrases we published in January;

1. Monsieur Dupont

You might know someone named Dupont, after all, it’s a fairly common name in France. And, yet, Monsieur Dupont is not always real – in fact the name is frequently used in a metaphorical context to signify an everyman figure, or someone whose identity is not known.

Pronounced: miss-yur doo-ponn 

Learn more about France’s ‘John Doe’ here.

2. Flasher 

You might be curious why French newspapers are writing about the number of “serial flasheurs” on the country’s roads. But it’s not what you think as this word is a classic faux ami (false friend). Flasher in French does not mean – as it does in English – someone who has exposed themselves in public.

In fact it means either taking a photograph, shining a (metaphorical) spotlight on something or falling head-over-heels in love. The photographic meaning is the most common, particularly in reference to being photographed by a speed camera.

Pronounced: flah-shay 

Find out more here.

3. Larguer les amarres

This originally nautical expression now has a less literal meaning to “let go” of something or launch something new. It’s most commonly heard in the context of a new start like moving house or starting a new job, or the end of something – in particular the end of a love affair.

Pronounced: lar-gay lays ah-mahr 

Find out more here.

4. Être bouleversé

If dinosaurs could talk, they may have used this French phrase to describe being hit by the asteroid. The word can be used in both extremely happy and extremely sad situations, to describe being either delighted or devastated by a turn of events.

Perhaps its closest English synonym is ‘bowled over’.

Pronounced eh truh bool vehr say

We explain how to use it here.

5. Enculer les mouches

Enculer les mouches has an extremely crude literal translation but as a phrase is actually not all that offensive (although it’s definitely casual).

In English we might call someone who is very picky over grammar and spelling a ‘pedant’, in French it’s the distinctly more dramatic ‘sodomiser of flies’. Interestingly, French is not the only language to have a very rude phrase for pedants, others include ‘comma fucker’ and ‘little dot shitter’.

Pronounced: ahn koo lay lay moosh 

Learn more here.

6. Viandard

We know that traditional French cuisine is quite meat-heavy and the French love their meat. However viandard has two meanings – the first being simply a person who loves meat, the second being an unscrupulous person who exploits others for gain. The secondary meaning is though to come from the hunting world.

Pronounced: vee-ahn-darr

We explain fully here.

7. Vœux

Vœux is the plural form of the word vœu, and is useful at weddings and other solemn occasions because it means ‘vow’. But the reason we have included it in our January roundup is because at the start of the year it is common for politicians, CEOs and other leaders to make ‘vows’ to their electorate or employees. 

Pronounced: vuh

Learn more here.

8. Amortisseur

This word might be already familiar to you if you are unlucky enough to have car trouble in France – it means shock absorber. But it can also be used in a metaphorical sense to describe a device or plan that cushions the blow or softens the impact, and in 2023 has a very specific meaning relating to electricity bills.

Pronounced: ah-more-tee-zur 

Let us tell you more here.

9. 6h pile

As any dictionary will tell you, the main meaning of the French word pile is a battery. However it can be used to mean “exact” or “sharp” when used to describe a moment in time – so 6h pile means “6am sharp” or “6am on the dot”. It’s also used in several phrases and expressions relating to time.

Pronounced: peel 

Full details here.

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