In an article on the political maneuvering between American President Obama and his Republican opponents over the government budget, I came across the the following quote by Republican senator Lindsey Graham:
“The president is showing a little bit of leg here, this is somewhat encouraging,” Graham said. “His overall budget’s not going to make it, but he has sort of made a step forward in the entitlement-reform process that would allow a guy like me to begin to talk about flattening the tax code and generating more revenue.”
The expression “showing a little bit of leg here” is the perfect example of what an idiom is. In certain contexts, it could be understood literally. Here of course it is not; Obama isn’t actually showing his leg. Instead, it refers figuratively to the willingness of Obama to make some compromise in his bargaining position.
Proper use of idiomatic expressions is a sign of a very high level of proficiency in a language. French is no different. Impeccable grammar and idioms are what makes the difference between run-of-the-mill good French and really impressive French.
That said, what would be a comparable French idiom to “show a little leg?” There are of course many idioms with jambe (leg) in French but none with the idea of “willing to compromise in negotiations.”
My suggestion is the quintessentially French expression mettre de l’eau dans son vin (to put water in one’s wine). Despite appearances, this idiom does not have the negative connotation of “water down.” It really means to “to make concessions” or “to become moderate.” Here are a few examples of how it could be used.
Le président Obama a mis de l’eau dans son vin. (President Obama showed little bit of leg.)
Les Républicains ont accepté de mettre de l’eau dans leur vin. (The Republicans agreed to compromise somewhat.)
On va mettre un peu d’eau dans notre vin. (We’ll compromise a bit.)
Je suis prêt/e à mettre un peu d’eau dans mon vin mais pas trop. (I’m willing to give a little but not too much)
In passing, notice the use of the so-called partitive construction de l’eau for “some water.” And please, avoid at all cost *un peu de l’eau dans son vin or *beaucoup de l’eau dans son vin. These are all too common and very jarring mistakes.
Some French idioms with jambe (leg)
Just like English, French has many idioms based on parts of the body. Here are some examples of the most commonly used ones with la jambe:
prendre les jambes à son cou (to run away)
Le voleur a pris les jambes à son cou. (The thief fled.)
avoir les jambes coupées / sciées (to be astonished or to be extenuated)
Quand j’ai entendu la nouvelle, j’ai eu les jambes coupées. (When I heard the news, I was astounded.)
avoir la queue entre les jambes (to appear ashamed)
Il est rentré à la maison la queue entre les jambes. (He returned home looking ashamed.)
être toujours dans ses jambes (to be always in the way)
Vraiment, cet enfant est toujours dans mes jambes. (Really, this child is always in my way.)
There are many others that you will find in any good dictionary of French idioms. The challenge of course is to incorporate them into your speech.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.