French Expression of the Day: Déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul

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French Expression of the Day: Déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

No need to worry if your name is Peter, you won't be literally undressed if a French person says this to you.


Why do I need to know déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul?

Because this can be handy to toss into a conversation if resources are limited.

What does it mean?

Déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul - roughly pronounced dess-ah-bee-ay pee-air pour ah-bee-ay Paul - technically translates as ‘to underdress Peter to dress Paul’. 

Most people probably aren’t discussing literally taking the clothes off the back of a man named Peter to give them to a guy called Paul. 


In reality, the expression refers to the act of solving one problem while simultaneously creating another.

In English, you might hear people say “rob Peter to pay Paul”. Usually the English expression has to do with money - perhaps a situation of borrowing from one person to pay back another, but the French phrase can be a bit more general. You might also say ‘shifting resources’.

You’ll see it often used in political discussions, such as a politician promising resources for one area while disinvesting from another.

The origins of the expression come from the Catholic tradition. During the 12th century, it was customary to dress the statues of saints ahead of a procession. Some parishes were light on money, so they would reuse the same decorations and ornaments for different saints based on where the festival fell in the year. The issue was that Saint Paul and Saint Peter were both celebrated on the same day: June 29th. As you can imagine, this led to a tricky situation.

Use it like this

Nous, on refuse de déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul. Nous devons faire grève pour obtenir plus de ressources. - We refuse to rob from Peter to pay Paul. We must strike in order to gain more resources.

Nous n'avons qu'un nombre limité d'enseignants dans l'école, et si vous envoyez le prof d'anglais pour remplacer le prof de mathématiques, vous ne faites que déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul. - We have a limited number of teachers in this school, and if you send the English teacher to replace the maths teacher, then all you are doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul.


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