French language expressions

When you think of twisting threads (retordre du fil), what’s the first image that comes to your mind? Do you think it as a difficult task? Take a minute to try and give a figurative meaning to the phrase “to give someone threads to twist”.

What’s the meaning of this phrase?

The modern meaning of this phrase is to cause problems, to bring trouble to someone’s life. It also means to embarrass someone, to be someone difficult. In other words, to give a hard time. But now you would ask “what does it have to do with threads and twisting threads?” Fortunately, we have the answer. 

What are the origins of this expression?

It finds its origins in the field of weaving. In days gone by, “retordre du fil” meant literally to put threads together to build up a thicker and more resistant thread. To all appearances, this may be a simple task. In reality, to obtain a twisted, thicker and consistent thread, was a hard job, considering the lack of uniformity in the fine threads. 

The difficulty found in this job was enough to create this expression. However, and this is something history hasn’t been able to explain, back in the 1630 this phrase meant a whole different thing: before “donner du fil à retordre” meant “se prostituer” (to prostitute yourself). Astonishing, right? But, don’t worry, we stuck to the modern meaning and if you’re willing to use this expression, everybody will understand “to give a hard time”.

When do we use it?

Here we’re talking about a very popular phrase that can be used in different contexts of everyday life:

  • A parent about his daughter : “ Ma fille me donne vraiment du fil à retordre en ce moment. Ses résultats au lycée laissent beaucoup à désirer…elle ne m’écoute pas! En plus, elle sort tous les weekends et rentre très tard la nuit. Elle n’a que 18 ans et elle croit qu’elle peut tout se permettre!


  • Two friends in a bar: “Tu as vu jouer Cristiano? Oh, là, là, il donne du fil à retordre aux autres joueurs! Il est inarrêtable!

And you? Do you know an expression similar to this one in the languages you speak? Does it have anything to do with twisting threads? We hope you enjoyed this article!

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French language expressions

French language expressions