Être au bout du rouleau
"To be at the end of the roll" isn't a good place to be. Whether the roll is a paint roll (un rouleau de peinture,) a paper roll (un rouleau de papier,) a rolling pin (rouleau à pâtisserie,) or a spring roll (un rouleau de printemps,) when you reach the end of it, there is nothing more to go with. And that's very much the idea: Je suis au bout du rouleau means I'm at the end of my rope, at my wits' end, at the end of my tether.
The expression can be used in any conversation and refer to any type of physical, moral, or financial decline.
Considering how many different types of rolls there are in everyday language, one may wonder: what’s the history behind this expression?
To understand the origin of this expression, we must go back to the 14th century. At that time, books were made of single pages, written on one side and glued end to end. The pages were then rolled around a boxwood or ivory stick. These scrolls were called roles and were commonly used as administrative registers and textbooks of all kinds.
At the theater, medieval actors read their texts on "roles" too - which explains that an actor plays a role - or joue un rôle. When an actor had little text in the play, the (thin) scroll was called a "rolet." The French expression first appeared as Être au bout de son rollet - Being at the end of your rolet - to characterize someone who didn't know what more to say or do, someone who was helpless in the face of a situation.
In the 19th century, un rollet became un rouleau, and the meaning of "the end of the rouleau" moved away from its theatrical connotation to refer primarily to financial destitution. Maybe the semantic shift had something to do with banks using coin paper rolls by that time, called rouleau de pièces? Since then, the meaning has widened further and now includes any predicament in which you have reached the end of your strength, endurance or patience. Very much like someone who has been thrown a safety rope, and has run out of length, as in the American expression "to be at the end of one's rope."
Après toutes ces épreuves, je suis au bout du rouleau.
After all these ordeals, I'm at my wit's end.
“Si tu es au bout du rouleau, alors, qui est à l’autre bout ?” Frédéric Beigbeder, 99 Francs.
"If you're at the end of your rope, then who's at the other end?"
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