Ever had the experience of singing song lyrics for years and then, seeing them written down one day, realising that you’ve been saying something similar but not quite right all along? With foreign languages this kind of experience is pretty frequent, especially when it comes to colloquial expressions. You can be using them in the right context, pronouncing the correct sound, and then one day, out of the blue, it will hit you: the expression as it existed inside your mind was something quite different, quite other than the linguistic reality.

Cycling through town yesterday the name of a restaurant caught my eye – an Asian eatery called ‘Ras-le-bol’ – literally a bowl filled to the brim, with an accompanying image to that effect. It was a clever play on words as in French the expression means ‘to be fed up’. And so it dawned on me that the colloquial expression I had been happily using was a 3-word composite with a literal meaning close to ‘to have it up to here with something’.

I had never really questioned it, but it vaguely existed in my mind as a set word, something like ‘ralbolle’, or being pushed at best a conjugation of the verb ‘râler’ (to complain), so ‘râle bol’. Not that this made any sort of sense, but I wasn’t asking it to, like many colloquial expressions, I had assumed its origins obscure, perhaps a result of some sort of Verlan inversion.

Yet this discovery gives the expression a new definition, a new feeling in my mouth, even though I’ll continue using it just as before. Next time I’m fed up with French administration and exclaim ‘j’en ai ras-le-bol!’, in my mind, just for an instant, will appear that faint image of a bowl, brim-full of frustration.


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