French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse

French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Not all of these will fit in your rucksack.

Why do I need to know couteau suisse?

Because it’s an interesting way to describe a person, and a metaphor that the French media seem to be becoming increasingly fond of. 

What does it mean?

couteau suisse is a Swiss army knife – that handy multi-purpose tool you might take on a hiking trip.

Quite logically, you can use couteau suisse as a metaphor to describe people who are particularly adaptable and skilled across the board. It’s the opposite of the English expression ‘one-trick pony’: someone who is a couteau suisse is a real all-rounder. 

It’s important to note, however, that the expression can have both positive and negative connotations. Government appointments, for example, may be criticised for favouring the same adaptable individuals rather than seeking real specialists. In this case, a post occupied by a couteau suisse might – to take the metaphor further – be better served by a more refined or more precisely-targeted tool.

Although the expression is masculine, it can apply to any gender. There’s absolutely no problem with saying elle est un couteau suisse to talk about a versatile woman, for example.

Use it like this

Il est un véritable couteau suisse – He’s a real all-rounder.

Ses qualités de « couteau-suisse » lui ont permis de réussir – His versatile qualities enabled him to succeed.


polyvalent – versatile

aux multiples talents – multi-talented

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