Friday’s French – poil, cheveux, hair, fur

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You may remember a discussion about poêle a couple of weeks ago. Now there is another word that is pronounced exactly the same way (unless you come from the south of France and pronounce the “e” at the end of poêle) and seems to have resulted in a few embarrassing situations for some of our readers!

Poil, from the Latin pilus, means body hair and applies to both animals and humans. In the case of animals, of course, it’s what we call fur. Un chien à poil ras = A dog with short fur. It is also used for a man’s beard, what we sometimes refer to as bristles in English.

It is NOT used for the hair on your head which is cheveu in the singular and cheveux in the plural. J’ai trouvé un cheveu gris sur ma tête – I found a grey hair on my head ; il a des cheveux bouclés = he has curly hair.

But back to poil which is far more interesting because of all the many expressions that exist.

Etre à poil means to be stark naked, as in, you can see all the person’s hair.

Avoir un poil dans la main (literally, to have a hair in one’s hand) = to be lazy. Now why is a complete mystery.

Reprendre du poil de la bête = to pick up again, to regain strength. For example,  j’ai eu la grippe pendant une semaine, mais j’ai repris du poil de la bête : I was down with the flu for a week, but now I’m on top of things again.

The expression literally means to take fur from an animal because people believed that the fur of an animal that had just bitten you could be used to heal the wound. It seems there is an English expression “the hair of the dog” that means an alcholic beverage consumed to cure a hangover, but I have personally never heard of it !

Another expression is s’il avait un poil de bon sens :  if he had an ounce of good sense.

C’est pile poil ce que je voulais:  it’s exactly what I wanted. This comes from tomber pile (au) poil from the expression pile ou face which means heads or tails (or more exactly tails or heads) and au poil which means exactly, that is, to within a hair’s breadth.

Do you know any other expressions with poil?

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