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French Expression of the Day: Renvoyer aux calendes grecques

The Local France
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French Expression of the Day: Renvoyer aux calendes grecques
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This French expression might help you complain about painstakingly long admin tasks in France.

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Why do I need to know renvoyer aux calendes grecques?

Because this phrase is handy for complaining about something that is taking a very long time to come into fruition.

What does it mean?

Renvoyer aux calendes grecques - roughly pronounced rahn-voy-ay oh cal-ahnd greh-kuh - technically translates as ‘to send back to the Greek calendars’, but it actually means to postpone something indefinitely. 

Some versions of the expression use the verbs remettre or reporter instead.

It goes all the way back to the Romans, who were not fans of people who dilly-dallied with paying off money they owed.

The Romans - who created a calendar system that heavily influences the one we use today - would refer to the first day of every month as the ‘calendes’ (the origin for the English word calendar and the French word calendrier). This was the day that people were expected to pay off their debts.

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When complaining about ‘bad debtors’, the Romans would joke that they were simply adhering to a ‘Greek calendar’, as the Greeks they had their own way of counting time which did not include ‘calendes’. 

The expression is meant to be somewhat sarcastic - it gives the idea that someone will do something at a precise time, but in reality that moment does not exist.

It's roughly equivalent to saying something will happen 'on the 10th of never'.  

The French use it to describe anything that has been put off indefinitely. You will often see it used to discuss political promises or plans that will never see the light of day. 

The alternative is to say you will do something à la saint-glinglin - on Saint Glinglin's Day - this is a made up saint so his day never comes around. 

Use it like this

Je suis si triste, à cause de la pandémie, mes vacances en Asie ont été renvoyées aux calendes grecques. - I am so sad. Thanks to the pandemic, my trip to Asia has been put off indefinitely.

La réforme du système de santé a été renvoyée aux calendes grecques. - The reform for the healthcare system has been put off indefinitely.

J'ai l'impression que je n'obtiendrai jamais de réponse de la préfecture. Mon dossier a été renvoyé aux calendes grecques. - I feel like I will never get a response from the prefecture. My dossier has been put off indefinitely.

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