This month is "Le Mois du Québec" at the Alliance, and it's only fair that we should learn some Quebecquois phrases. Obviously, the realities of a French speaker in Canada are not the same as a French speaker in Europe or Africa. Idioms are definitely one of the colorful ways in which those differences come to light. Here are some quaint expressions that don't make much sense to Francophones from other regions - let alone Anglophones - but will certainly be handy when you meet French Canadians!
Pelleter des nuages
In Quebec, harsh winters force people to shovel snow, again and again. This drudgery, which has almost become a national sport, has given rise to many interesting expressions that have nothing to do with the weather anymore. The stunningly visual expression pelleter des nuages is one of them.
Instead of snow, what one is shoveling here is clouds - hopefully the pretty, white puffy kind. While certainly less taxing on one's back, shoveling clouds might yield little more than stirred air, which is precisely what the expression implies. Pelleter des nuages means to be airy - or airy fairy as the British would say - to be lacking substance or purpose. Similarly, un pelleteur de nuages is a day dreamer, someone who is out of touch with reality.
Si seulement mon fils pouvait retourner à ses études plutôt que de pelleter des nuages à longueur de journée!
If only my son could get back to studying instead of spending his time day dreaming!
Attache ta tuque!
Une tuque is a word unknown to the French (the joy of temperate weather), but it’s an indispensable accessory for the frozen Quebecois: it is a knit hat, a beanie.
There is a type that comes with cheek covers and strings to tie it up so it doesn't fall, especially if you are about to do go downhill on a sled or snowmobile. Tying a toque refers to fixing the hat in place in case a turbulent wind comes and blows it off, literally or figuratively. More generally, it could be translated as: Have your wits about you as tough times are afoot! In short: Buckle up!
Je vais pousser le traineau dans la pente, attache ta tuque!
I’m going to push that sled down the hill, get ready!
Avoir l'air de la chienne à Jacques
The origin of the expression looking like Jacques' dog warms the heart. There was an old man named Jacques Aubert who lived on the Lawrence River at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Jacques was a bachelor and only had his old dog for company. When the dog got sick and lost all of her fur, Jacques dressed her up in his old tatty sweaters so she would stay warm. What a sweetheart! Though this is a lovely tale, if someone tells you tu as l'air de la chienne à Jacques, it is not exactly a compliment; they are saying that you are seriously challenged in the fashion department, or else, dressed like a scarecrow.
You will also come across s'habiller (to dress) comme la chienne à Jacques, or être habillé(e) (to be dressed) comme la chienne à Jacques, with the same meaning.
The European French equivalent would be: s'habiller comme l'as de pique - to dress like the ace of spade. The spade was traditionally seen as the weakest color of the cards in France and was often associated with negative outcomes. Molière, the 17th century French playwright, used the ace of spades as a synonym for idiot in his play Le dépit amoureux. The expression stuck and came to describe anyone dressed 'like an idiot,' i.e. with bad taste. Like poor Jacques' dog.