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On the BBC’s Pointless quiz show recently, there was a round all about French names for insects.
« Ça m’a mis la puce à l’oreille. » [It put the flea in my ear] = It got me thinking
More interesting than a mere list of insect vocabulary, how about some insect-related phrases?
Straight off the bat, another “flea” expression would be the equivalent of our expression, “a stone’s throw from here”:
« Ce n'est qu’un saut de puce » [It’s the jump of a flea]
Le dictionnaire fourmille* de références aux insectes.
The dictionary is teeming with* references to insects. Unfortunately, the majority are negative - rather like in our own insectist language! There are however a few little gems that you might even want to learn and use. Here is a small selection: [the square brackets show the literal translation]
Il prend la mouche [He’s taking the fly] = He’s gone off in a huff
Elle a le cafard [she has the cockroach] = to feel a bit depressed
cafarder [to cockroach] = to tell tales about someone
une coccinelle = ladybird. This is also what the French call the VW Beetle
"Arrête d’asticoter ton frère !" = Stop annoying your brother! [un asticot = maggot] I suppose we say to “bug” someone…
un éphémère = a mayfly… because it is so ephemeral, famously only living for a single day
un éphémèride = a block calendar, one of those that you tear a page off each day
On being very thin:
Tu as un ver solitaire ? = Do you have a tape-worm?!
Tu as une taille de guêpe = waist of a wasp = hour-glass figure
Other honourable mentions:
For years I thought that the praying mantis was a ‘preying’ mantis, assuming that their name reflected what efficient predators they were, rather than the anthropomorphised association with their physical form. The French has no such ambiguity: “une mante religieuse” !
Ants deserve a whole section to themselves: les fourmis (feminine word)
Elle s’affaire comme une fourmi = She’s as busy as a bee, as we say in English
In the opening section of this post, I translated “teeming with” as “fourmiller de…”
I wonder whether you have worked out by now that this is the verb form of the noun: la fourmi à fourmiller.
And finally, if you have been sitting still for too long, reading this, you might have “des fourmis dans les jambes” = [ants in the legs] pins and needles.
Similar to this, let’s finish with the same little mite that we started with: “Tu as des puces, ou quoi?!” Have you got ants in your pants, or what?
While I was and double-checking some of the above details with my French friend and colleague, she told me about a famous trilogy in modern French literature, by Bernard Werber: “Les fourmis”. Translated as “The Empire of the Ants”
You can read an extract here: EXTRAIT DU LIVRE : LES FOURMIS de Werber | BIBLIOTHEQUE à Céder (unblog.fr)
Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages
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