Tag Archives: French idiom

You can smell the wood

Text: “​​ça sent le sapin”

Translation: You can smell the wood


K is a student studying fashion in Paris. He first heard this French idiom in a car with his Parisian girlfriend’s family. The girlfriend’s sister was coughing a lot, and the mother said this phrase in response. This saying is essentially a way of saying, in jest, that someone is close to death. The “wood” in question is a reference to the material of a cheap coffin. Therefore, saying that a person can smell the wood, means they are very close to being in a coffin. 


This phrase reminds me of the similar saying “knocking on death’s door”. Joking about death, or discussing it in such a flippant manner is quite a common thing in most western cultures. Death, typically, is something that is feared in most western societies, likely because what happens after death is understood to be unknown and undiscoverable to the living. Thus this dark humor present in such a normalized phrase is a response to the inherent fear of death so many have within themselves. Dramatizing something as simple as a cough (or other situation in which this phrase arises) allows the folk engaging in this speech to exhibit some small amount of control over death; in taking the seriousness out of the topic, it removes some of the fear about it too.