French Expression of the Day: À fleur de peau

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French Expression of the Day: À fleur de peau
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This very poetic sounding French expression is actually for less than poetic situations.


Why do I need to know à fleur de peau?

Because if someone tells you this, you may want to stop bothering them.

What does it mean?

À fleur de peau - roughly pronounced ah fleur duh poe - translates precisely as ‘flowering of skin’. 

But in a literal sense, it does not have anything to do with flowers or skin. It actually means ‘to be on edge’ or to be ‘highly sensitive’, you might also say ‘at the end of your rope.’ 

À fleur de peau can also be used to call something superficial (like ‘skin-deep’ in English), but this meaning is less common.


The expression is meant to reference the way one might get goosebumps or have some kind of visible, physical skin reaction to being touched lightly. 

A person might say they are à fleur de peau if they are feeling very overwhelmed or emotionally sensitive, or if they are frustrated and could get angry easily.

You could also say this person is sensible (sensitive) or énervé (irritated).

In terms of the origins of this expression - flowers have long been connected to sensitivity and emotion in poetic speech in France, and the phrase à fleur de has been used to mean ‘on the edge of’ since at least the 16th century. 

Since then, there have been several expressions - including à fleur d'eau (at water’s edge) - that designate being on the edge of something, either figuratively or literally.

Use it like this

Je suis à fleur de peau, la journée a été longue. S'il te plaît, donne-moi un peu de silence. - I am at the end of my rope, the day was really long. Please give me a moment of silence.

Donne-lui un peu d'espace, il est à fleur de peau parce qu’il a passé des heures dans les bouchons. - Give him some space, he’s on edge because he spent hours in traffic.


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