Tag Archives: French proverb

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.

“Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler”

Main piece:

“Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler”


Il faut: It’s necessary

tourner: to rotate

sept fois: seven times

sa langue: the tongue

dans sa bouche: inside the mouth

avant: before

de parler: speaking

Translation: Before saying something, you ought to think well about your words / Think before you speak


P.S.: My father used to tell this a lot…my aunt as well. There are similar sayings in Italian as well, but…hum I don’t know, my father sometimes just switched to French to make concepts more vivid.

My informant is my father, who was born in Belgium from Italian immigrants and who spent the first years of his life in Mons, before moving to Italy. Even after his transferring, he continued to visit many times each year his native country, also because much of his family still lived there. Since really young he was told many French proverbs, especially by his parents and by those family members who continued to live in Belgium.


My informant and other relatives of mine told me several times multiple French proverbs, and, in this particular case, we were in the informant’s living room.


I believe each culture presents a similar proverb, which encourages everyone to think carefully about his or her own actions and words, as they could easily affect or, even, damage the other. At the same time, it invites people at thinking logically and reasoning reflectively on something before acting, as it often happens that impulsive behaviors or decisions are the ones a person can regrets the most.

This sort of saying has been a fundamental part of my up-bringing, it being repeatedly mentioned to me in multiple occasions by family members. 

French Proverb

Comme on fait son lit, on se couche.

As you make your bed, so you must lie.

My grandfather, like my grandmother, grew up in a small farming town in the middle of rural Louisiana. The town, Ponchatoula, was still very French/Creole in nature and both of my grandpa’s parents spoke French as their first language. When he was younger, my grandfather and his schoolmates would always take clandestine swims in the Mississippi River on hot and muggy afternoons, much to his mothers chagrin. She was always worried that he would get caught in a rip-current and end up drowning in the river.

When telling me about his youthful mischievous adventures on our home patio, my grandpa would always recall his mom telling him that proverb when he got himself into trouble. One of the days he went swimming in the river, he recalls being pinched by a crawfish then running home crying to his mother, who had nothing to say besides “Comme on fait son lit, on se couche,” which in simpler terms refers to having to put up with the unpleasant results of a foolish action. I enjoy this proverb because I find it interesting that the “make your bed, lie in it” proverb exists in other languages and cultures. The expression, though varying from place to place, is quite universally popular, with friends of mine from different backgrounds all using it in one way or another.