When we tell someone “A un de ces quatre” we mean literally “To one of these four” or in proper English “See you around!” or just “See you!”.
How can we explain this expression?
“Quatre” is a number often used in “expressions imagées”, but we don’t really know why. Some might mention the fact that the human being has four limbs. Others think this is due to the existence of four seasons or four points of the compass. However, this figure is rather imprecise in the majority of expressions.
Here the expression is a shortcut to the phrase “Un de ces quatre matins”. This last one is translated literally to “one of these four mornings”, but of course that is not the proper meaning. It points out to a small quantity and a short period of time, but that stays still indeterminate. This explains its lack of precision and resemblance to the word “bientôt” (soon).
No historical explanation found
As we mentioned before, the origins of the word “quatre” in this turn of phrase are not clear. Research has been made without any answer, but there’s the belief that it originated around the XIX century.
When is it used?
Since we’re talking about a span of time, we use this expression when referring to something that will eventually happen. We know it won’t be in a very long time, we know it will be done soon but not exactly when.
Remember those times when you bumped into a friend or an acquaintance and both agreed to hang out soon? Remember that when this friend told you “We should grab dinner sometime” you said “Absolutely, we should do that”? Rumor has it it never happened, but at that very moment you both thought it would happen soon, “un de ces quatre”.
However, be careful, when you say this expression you actually mean it! For example, you bring a delicious chocolate cake to the office and everybody loves it, someone tells you “Tu devrais nous donner la recette un de ces quatre” (You should really share the recipe with us one of these days) and then, since you’re proud of your work you share it with them!
Another example of this expression would be when you’re at the end of an evening with your friends, but one of them lives a little bit farther than the others, which makes it difficult to see him. When you’re saying goodbye, you would say to this friend “A un de ces quatres”, because you really don’t know when you’ll meet again, but you know for sure it will happen soon.