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French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse

Not all of these will fit in your rucksack.

French phrase of the Day: Couteau suisse
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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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For members


French Word of the Day: Hélas

This French word can be found in old novels, and your friend's dramatic recounting of their most recent administrative hurdle.

French Word of the Day: Hélas

Why do I need to know hélas?

Because despite being quite old-fashioned, you might hear someone slip this word into the middle of their sentence.

What does it mean?

Hélas roughly pronounced ay-lass is an interjection that you are likely to see if you are reading a French novel, or hear, if someone is telling a particularly dramatic story.

Hélas is used in a manner very similar to the English term ‘alas’ – as an interjection in the middle of a sentence or thought, though typically before describing something unfortunate or upsetting. In fact, the English term likely arose from the French one during the Middle Ages.

A French synonym might be malheureusement (unfortunately). 

It’s common in novels, especially historic ones, while in spoken French, you might hear it more sarcastically, as it is a bit old-fashioned. If your friend is feeling a bit theatrical in their storytelling, then they might pop hélas in for dramatic effect. 

Use it like this

J’ai fait le tour à la recherche d’un parking pendant une heure et, hélas, juste au moment où j’ai trouvé ma place, quelqu’un d’autre l’a prise. – I drove around in the parking lot for an hour, and alas, just when I found a spot, someone else took it.

L’écrivain du début du XXe siècle a écrit plus de 20 chefs-d’œuvre, mais hélas, il n’a jamais été reconnu de son vivant. – The early 20th century writer wrote over 20 masterpieces, but alas, he was never recognised in his lifetime.