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I’m due soon with my second son and so have had pregnancy and birth on my mind a lot lately. I’ve always loved the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of birth and pregnancy in his writings to denote giving birth to ideas in philosophy. In one famous example, Nietzsche wrote, “What saved me then [from madness]? Nothing but pregnancy. And each time after I had given birth to my work my life hung suspended by a thin thread.” For Nietzsche, philosophy was the process of giving birth to ideas.
This got me thinking about expressions in French that similarly play on the meanings of pregnancy and birth. In French, birth is l’accouchement and pregnancy is la grossesse. It might be somewhat easy to understand how la grossesse denotes pregnancy, as it references “largeness,” or the growing belly of a pregnant woman. For the word accouchement, the term developed from women in labor being accouchée, or lying down in bed during childbirth. Indeed, in Old French the verb accoucher just meant to lay down in bed or to put in bed.
Here are five French expressions that play upon notions of pregnancy and childbirth:
1.La montagne a accouché d’une souris
This expression, which literally means “the mountain gave birth to a mouse,” comes from a fable by Jean de la Fontaine called La Montagne qui accouche, which goes:
Une montagne en mal d’enfant
Jetait une clameur si haute
Que chacun, au bruit accourant,
Crut qu’elle accoucherait sans faute
D’une cité plus grosse que Paris.
Elle accoucha d’une souris
A mountain in the pains of childbirth
Threw out a high a clamor so high
that everyone, with the sounds of running,
thought that she would give birth without a problem
to a city even larger than Paris.
But she gave birth to a mouse.
This expression—and the proverb it comes from—simply means when something large or impressive is expected or promised, but in actuality something small is delivered instead.
Very simply, accouche!, which literally means “give birth,” is a popular expression that means “Out with it!” or “Spit it out!”
3. Accouche, qu’on baptise!
This is a Québéçois expression, which literally means “give birth, so we can baptize [the child],” means something like the French expression “accouche!” It is used when someone is taking too long to say something or to tell a story, and is used with humor to urge someone to “spit it out.” Like other Québéçois expressions, it is based on French Catholic belief.
Can you think of any other French expressions that use metaphors of pregnancy or childbirth? Leave them in the comments below!