French Expression of the Day: Chant du cygne

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French Expression of the Day: Chant du cygne
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This French expression is useful for more than just birdwatching.


Why do I need to know chant du cygne?

Because most public figures hope to have one of these at the end of their careers.

What does it mean?

Chant du cygne - roughly pronounced shahnt due see-neeuh - translates as ‘swan song’. 

This expression has the same meaning as its English counterpart - referring to a great final performance, gesture or effort, usually before death or retirement.


It has been used in France since at least the 17th century, but its origins - in both French and English - go back to the ancient Greeks. 

One legend, according to Plato in Phaedo, is that Socrates remarked that the song sung by swans before death was joyful rather than sorrowful. 

Modern scientists have now debunked the myth that swans sing a song before dying, but the expression has permeated western cultures. 

In France, the phrase ‘chant de cygne’ is most often used ahead of a politician or famous figure’s retirement or departure.

For politicians, it is usually referenced when discussing their final deed or accomplishment at the end of their career or term.

Use it like this

Le plan d'éducation, qui avait pour objectif d'offrir un enseignement gratuit, a été son chant du cygne. - The education plan, with the goal of offering free schooling, was his swansong. 

Je veux aller voir l'orchestre ce week-end. C'est le chant du cygne du chef d'orchestre avant qu'il ne prenne sa retraite. - I want to go to the orchestra this weekend. It’s going to be the conductor’s swansong performance before he retires.


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