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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17 thoughts on “Friday’s French – poil, cheveux, hair, fur”

  1. Pile poil is one of my favourites. Our mechanic uses it all the time, as an exclamation on its own to indicate something is now ‘spot on’ after he’s twiddled with it a bit.

      1. I don’t know if it is because people are grumpier here — I don’t think so — but I’ve heard this expression way more in the opposite sense: “de mauvais poil,” for “to be in a bad mood.”

        1. Whence the expression, I assume “caresser dans le sens du poil” – to stay on the right side of someone, as in stroke their fur in the right direction.

  2. Les poilus — the French term for military veterans. As I understand it the nickname was first applied to those in the trenches of the First World War. It referred to both their luxuriant facial hair and the fact that they had to be ‘hairy chested’ ie ‘real men’.

    1. Susan, I checked it out and it seems it’s more complex than that.

      Here is a rough translation of the explanation given on

      “Naturally, it wasn’t because the horrendous hygiene conditions prevented them from shaving.

      The origin of the term goes back to Molière and means a man of proven bravoury, courageous and virile.

      It was also used for Napoleon’s Grognards at Austerlitz to describe a man who has hair in the right place and not in the hand. [see post]

      This military term, which dates back more than a century before the Great War, also meant … the working-class Parisian, ready to attack and full of pluck.

      But since 1914, “poilu” is used by civilians to mean a fighting soldier, who defends the homeland, as opposed to a shirker.”

      The author goes on to explain that the “poilus” also invented their own trench slang comprising some 2,000 terms, including cuistot, peinard, etc.

  3. If you have hairs on the palms of your hand it must be because you have not done any manual work to wear them off , ie lazy.
    But we know that people who have hair on the palms of their hands are stupid, well they must be stupid to look, as , of course, we humans don’t have hairy palms.
    BTW. I am enjoying going through these ‘old’ posts .

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