Frequently used in politics, the French expression traîner des casseroles is one for the image-conscious. Here’s the comprehensive guide to what it means, how to use it, and all its equivalents. Get it right and take your French to the next level!
To drag some saucepans.
To be compromised and burdened by one’s embarrassing past actions or involvements.
Avoir été compromis dans des affaires douteuses et, par conséquent, traîner une réputation controversée.
The Story Behind It
Francophones seem particularly bothered by the clattering of saucepans and this has inspired a number of interesting idioms. For example, an awful singer “sings like a saucepan.” Meanwhile, in politics and other domains where public perception matters, a person whose reputation is sullied by scandals is said to “drag saucepans.”
According to Edouard Trouillez, a lexicographer for the French publishing house Le Robert, traîner des casseroles comes from a cruel joke that children used to play. It involved tying a saucepan to the tail of a dog, which would naturally try to rid itself of this bothersome object. The animal would thrash about and create a lot of noise, making matters worse.
We need only imagine a politician trying to shake off a history of bad decisions and dealings to see why this expression works. With his or her every move, the trailing saucepans ring, the negative press coverage begins anew, and the public uproar grows. It’s loud, it’s inconvenient, and it’s totally embarrassing.
The metaphor of the saucepan as an embarrassing affair was first recorded in 1902, during the Dreyfus Affair. A 12-year-long scandal involving a Jewish French military officer who was unjustly accused of treason, l’affaire Dreyfus left the French nation deeply divided. Two well-known French writers in particular clashed over Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence: Émile Zola and Maurice Barrès. Zola was a fervent defender of the officer, while Barrès, in his work Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme (1902), criticized both men, commenting that Zola had attached himself to the thundering saucepan that was this whole affair. By politicizing la casserole, Barrès introduced this expression in its current form.
A Note on Faux Amis
It’s important to note that une casserole and a casserole are faux amis (false friends). This means they have different meanings in French and in English, despite looking and sounding similar.
- The French casserole is what we’d call a saucepan in English.
- The English casserole is a number of things, none of which are a saucepan. A casserole can be a large baking dish (un plat à four) or the food prepared in this container. The term is also sometimes used for cast-iron dutch ovens (une marmite en fonte).
- To have baggage.
- To have skeletons in the closet (or cupboard).
- Traîner une casserole.
- Avoir des casseroles (aux fesses).
- Avoir des casseroles au cul. * Vulgar
- Avoir un cadavre dans le placard.
Other expressions featuring la casserole
- Chanter commme une casserole — This expression is related to one’s singing ability, or lack of it.
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