‘Speak of the devil’ – Why are there so many wolves in the French language?

'Speak of the devil' - Why are there so many wolves in the French language?
Photo: M. Zonderling on Unsplash
Long feared as the savage beast lurking in the woods, the wolf has inspired a range of French language expressions that still exist today. Here are some of our favourites.

Quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue

Directly translated as ‘when you speak of the wolf you see its tail’, this expression is the French version of ‘speak of the devil’. This is no coincidence, back in the day wolf was a feared and dreaded creature in France and some used to say it incarnated the devil.

Use this expression like you would use the English equivalent, that is when someone appears just as they are mentioned in a conversation.

À pas de loup

If a person walks into the room à pas de loup – with wolf’s steps – chances are you won’t notice them straight away. Walking à pas de loup means tiptoeing around.

It can be literally tiptoeing to avoid making noise: Il est entré dans la piece à pas de loup pour ne pas me réveiller, mais ensuite il a fait tomber la lampe. – He tiptoed as he entered the room so as to not wake me up, but then he toppled the lamp.

But it can also be metaphorically as in being ‘discreet’ about a topic. 

Faim de loup

Avoir une faim de loup means ‘to be hungry as a wolf’ and exists in English too. It means to be ‘very hungry’ or ‘starving’ to a degree that you feel like gulping down a whole sheep (or a village).

J’ai un faim de loup aujourd’hui, je ne sais pas ce qui me prend ! – I’m starving today, I don’t know what’s going on with me!

Froid de loup 

This one means ‘wolf-cold’ and sounds a bit odd seeing as wolves have thick fur that you would think keeps them warm in winter.

But the expression doesn’t actually refer to the wolves themselves, according to l’Internaute. The French online dictionary explains that the expression originated in the region of Franche-Comté, near the Swiss Alps.

When the cold north wind blew, the roof tiles made a crackling sound. Locals believed that this was a sign that hungry wolves would emerge from their lairs. In other words it was time to bring domestic animals (and themselves) inside and shut the doors.

The expression means that it’s really cold: il fait un froid de loup ! – It’s freezing!

Another variant of this is froid de canard – duck-cold.

Connu comme le loup blanc

If you’re connu comme le loup blanc – known like the white wolf – you’re pretty famous.

Back in the day, whenever a wolf approached a French village, word spread immediately. Locals, terrified of the devilish beast that they perceived wolf to be, would tell their neighbours, families and friends to watch out. This is how the expression connu comme le loup (known like the wolf) originated back in the 18th century. 

It was only later, in the 19th century, that the blanc (white) was added, according to Expressio, to reinforce the idea that the thing talked about was something truly extraordinary. 

Jeune loup 

A ‘young wolf’ is to the French what a ‘young Turk’ can mean to Anglophones: an ambitious man looking for quick success and is ready to use any means in his possession to achieve it. The full expression is jeune loup aux dents longues – young wolf with long teeth.

French online dictionary l’Internaute describes is as an expression “most frequently used to describe a person with too much of a pushy attitude, ready for all obscenities to satisfy their personal ambitions.”

According to the dictionary the original meaning of the expression, which dates back to the 14th century, was simply ‘to be hungry’.

Loup solitaire

Loup solitaire means ‘lone wolf’, which is what the French – just like English-speakers – call terrorists who seemingly acted alone. But être un loup solitaire (to be a lone wolf) can also mean that you simply like to be alone and do your own thing.

C’est un vrai loup solitaire, celui-là – He’s a real lone wolf, that one.

Se jeter dans la gueule du loup 

This means ‘to throw oneself into the wolf’s mouth’, which is the French version of ‘throw to the wolves,’ in other words exposing someone to grave danger. Se jeter dans la gueule du loup originated back in the 15th century as an expression describing reckless and dangerous behaviour, according to l’Internaute.

Obviously throwing oneself into a wolf’s mouth was regarded as a pretty stupid idea.

Il n’aurait dû rien dire.. Il s’est jeté dans la gueule du loup tout seul, quoi. – He shouldn’t have said anything. He threw himself to the wolves there.

Avoir vu le loup

Avoir vu le loup translates as ‘to have seen the wolf’, but the expression implies having done a little bit more to the ‘wolf’ than throwing a glance at it. We already went through how a young wolf can be used to describe an ambitious man ready to do whatever to get what he wants. Well, in this case, what the man wanted was a young woman and the fact that she’s ‘seen’ him means he got her into bed (yes, we know, the French language is full of sexist expressions).

Back in the 15th century, la danse du loup (the wolf’s dance) was code for ‘making love’ (or ‘having sex’, if you will).

In the 18th century, avoir vu le loup originated as the French version of ‘to lose one’s cherry’ (lose your virginity).

L’Internaute describes it as symbolising wolf hunting, “which is a dangerous sport, and therefore requires a certain level of experience.” So when a young woman first went to bed with a man, this was associated with danger. However, as she gained more experience (lovers?), participating in the hunt became less dangerous.

Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.