No matter the particulars of our heated discussions, the go-to expert solution proposed by one of my closest French friends is invariably: “Mais tu sais ce que Brassens a dit sur ça ?” (But you know what Brassens said about this?)
He’s not alone in constantly conjuring up wisdom from the French singer-songwriter and poet Georges Brassens—I’ve heard the same in many other social groups. In fact, it’s nearly a standard feature of conversations in French.
As such, I believe that if you want to speak French, you should be able to understand and ideally even quote some Brassens.
And that’s where this post comes in.
We’ll get some wisdom on romance—and its inevitable failings—from three of his most popular songs, and learn quite a few useful and fun French expressions along the way. This is particularly of use to advanced learners, as there are some complicated expressions. We will, however, look at some more basic, everyday expressions as well.
3 Classic Songs by Georges Brassens to Teach You Advanced French Expressions
1. “L’orage” (The Storm)
Le bel azur me met en rage
(Literally) The beautiful azure puts me in a rage
Mettre en rage (to enrage) is a great expression for extreme anger.
You can also be fou de rage (crazy with anger) or hopping mad. Be careful, though: When the French word for rage is used with the definite article, i.e., la rage, it is for talking about rabies.
Listening to this song, we quickly discover why Brassens has developed a taste for nasty weather. It seems that he fondly remembers one particular storm that served as an excuse to take in a neighbor whose husband was away due to his job as a traveling salesman. She says, “Je suis seule et j’ai peur,” (I’m alone and scared).
Brassens, such a gentleman, decides to help her out:
Je l’ai mise en lieu sûr entre mes bras câlins
I put her in a safe place in my cuddling arms
You can also use the phrase mettre en lieu sûr (to put in a safe place) to talk about putting actual physical things away for safekeeping.
Câlin (hug) is used as an adjective here, but it is also a fantastic noun. One doesn’t hug in French culture—at least not in the American style of the enthusiastic (and even jumping-up-and-down) greeting—but you might say to a French lover or someone you’re close to, “fais-moi un câlin,” (hug me) to request some cuddling.
Be aware that the expression by itself (without the indirect object) is a euphemism for sex, so “on a fait un câlin ce matin” is a pleasant, endearing way of saying “we got some loving on this morning.” I wish we had such an equally light and tender expression for the act in English.
Brassens’ use of entre mes bras câlins just means that he simply took her in his arms, but then he proudly reports:
Et puis l’amour a fait le reste
And then love did the rest
Things work out great for Brassens and the neighbor that particular night, but this passion, like all passion, is doomed.
The husband becomes a millionaire and takes his wife away to a pays imbécile où jamais il ne pleut (an idiotic country where it never rains). Oh, the tragedy, that poor woman with her millionaire husband on some tropical island, without les bras câlins de Brassens.
2. “Je me suis fait tout petit” (I’ve Become Itsy Bitsy)
Lyrics: “Je me suis fait tout petit”
Brassens pronounces the title line running roughshod over a few syllables, but the point is that he’s been transformed from a chien méchant (feisty dog) into a teensy-weensy excuse for a man. That’s the entire plot of the song right there, but he’s got quite a range of ways for describing the situation.
Elle me fait manger dans sa menotte
She is making me eat out of her little hand
Menotte is a cutesy word for hand; la main is the common word.
Manger dans la main de quelqu’un means exactly the same as the English “to be eating out of someone’s hand” (be tamed by someone). Brassens’ version with elle me fait is a bit stronger; his lion-tamer of a wife is making him eat out of her hand.
dur à cuire — a hard nut to crack, a tough cookie, (literally) difficult to cook
je subis sa loi — I suffer under her rule
Loi is the French word for law, but here it is used in a more general sense.
je file tout doux — I really watch my step
The verb filer means to go quickly or to dash off. You’ll hear people say “il faut filer” (I/we/one must go) when it’s time to make one’s quick exit. The expression filer doux (literally, dash softly) can be translated as to toe the line, keep a low profile or watch one’s step. Tout intensifies it in Brassens’ case.
3. “Les copains d’abord” (Friends First)
Lyrics: “Les copains d’abord”
As we’ve seen so far, love is a tough business. We’ve always got our pals though. Thus the repeated line and the title of this song:
Les copains d’abord
D’abord is a set adverb for saying what one is doing first of all, e.g., d’abord on va acheter le vin (first, we’ll buy the wine).
Copains could be a group of male and female pals, or (more likely) a group of only males.
In any case, that’s how the song title is written, but is that what he’s really singing? After all, this all takes place on a boat trip with some close friends. Maybe he actually says:
Les copains de bord — The shipmates
Oh, the clever guy. Whichever it is, we know two things. One, he says that this is how he’s named the boat. And two, he definitely is not singing the more commonly heard nautical expression:
Les femmes et les enfants d’abord — Women and children first
Can we forgive his lack of chivalry? At least we’ve already seen in other songs what love has wrought on this poor heterosexual male. But the song title is basically a 1960s French version of the current (and, yes, noxious) phrase “Bros before hos.”
Brassens says that this boat, les copains d’abord, is the one to trust:
Des bateaux j’en ai pris beaucoup,
Mais le seul qui ait tenu le coup…
I’ve taken lots of boats
But the only one that was up to the job…
Tenir le coup is a common expression for holding out, carrying on or withstanding something.
Note that throughout this song word order gets inverted in a rather poetic fashion to aid the rhyme. Here, starting with the sentence’s object (des bateaux) is a bit flowery. It works fine though. You would more likely say “j’ai pris beaucoup de bateaux.”
Looking for more Brassens? I don’t agree with all of the translations, but the Brassens with English blog is still a fabulous resource for both the written lyrics, English versions and some context to understand them. The songs themselves are of course available on YouTube, and you can always run a search for [song title] and the word paroles (lyrics) to find more lyrics. You can even find some options to watch on FluentU!
Brassens’ oeuvre is a rich field of interesting expressions and ideas, and best of all, if you spend time with them you’re not only bettering your French but enjoying music that is an integral part of the Francophone cultural landscape.
Mose Hayward blogs about the culture of sex and romance in France, as well as in a few less-passionate lands.
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