Roasting the Broom

A interesting French idiom I came across recently is rôtir le balai, which literally means “to roast the broom/brush”. Originally it meant to live in poverty – such poverty that your are reduced to burning your broom to keep warm. Later it came to mean “to lead a miserable life, or vegetate in mediocrity” and also “to live a life of debauchery” – usually when referring to a woman [source].

Broom

The word balai [ba.lɛ] means broom, broomstick, brush, or blade (of a windscreen wiper), and also is a slang term for years (of age) [source]. Some words and phrases it appears in include:

  • manche à balai = broomstick, joystick
  • balai-brosse = long-handled scrubbing brush
  • balai à franges = mop
  • balai éponge = squeezey mop
  • balai mécanique = carpet sweeper
  • coup de balai = sweep, shake-up
  • donner un coup de balai = to give the floor a sweep, to sweep up
  • fou comme un balai = very agitated, excited and/or anxious (“as crazy as a broom”)
  • du balai ! = hop it! shoo! push off!

Balai comes from the Old French balain (a bundle of broom twigs), from the Gaulish balatno (broom (shrub)) from the Proto-Celtic *banatlom (broom). Words from the same root include the Breton balan (broom), the Cornish banadhel (broom), the Welsh banadl (broom), the Spanish bálago (straw; Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) [source].

The broom shrub here is the common broom or Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a perennial leguminous shrub native to western and central Europe, which can be used to make brooms (for sweeping) [source].

Broom

Incidentally, the Chinese character 妇 [婦] (fù), which means married woman, woman or wife, developed from pictograms of a woman and a broom. Originally the woman was on the right and the broom on the left, but at some point they switched sides source].

Do you know any other broom-related idioms?

2 thoughts on “Roasting the Broom

  1. The most obvious idiom is to “give (them) the broom”, which means to get rid of someone by “sweeping” them out of your house. The other broom-related idiom involves “sweeping” a series of sports games by winning all of them. In US baseball, this is seen a lot when a team has “swept” a 3-game series, and then someone from the team will bring out a broom to taunt the losing side. A “clean sweep” means to get rid of everything, such as firing all employees of a company or department.

    I can’t think of any as colorful as your opening example, though. I think you have swept away all other examples, so to speak :-))

  2. How about as daft as a brush? That would be another good translation of “fou comme un balai “.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.