N’avoir ni queue ni tête

Today’s entry is from guest blogger, Philip Gabriel Hege, a student in my AP French. Merci, Gabe.

Literally, n’avoir ni queue ni tête (navwahr knee kuh knee tet) means having neither tail nor head. Figuratively, it is used to express confusion and not being able to understand what’s happening. Now this may sound dull but this particular idiomatic expression is actually quite interesting because of its expanse into other languages. It is not an expression solely used in la langue d’amour.

We, in English, rarely find idioms that match or even resemble idioms in other languages, due to differences in culture and in history. Most often you will find idioms that share figurative meanings will not share literal meanings whatsoever. But on the off chance, when we run into those choice expressions that share both literal and figurative meaning, we must reason that the two expressions share a common origin.

This case isn’t any different. With a quick search one can find that n’avoir ni queue ni tête is said to first come from Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Ancient Roman philosopher, who wrote “Ne caput nec pedes” (neither head nor tail), to describe confusion. He has provided us with a rather logical expression that plays on the fact that one can understand something better if they know where it begins and ends. Arguably, Cicero’s most significant contribution to western society is his impact on Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, centuries after his death. His writings were then translated into many languages, like English and French, which allowed his word to be spread across the globe. So I guess we can call Cicero a rather important figure in our enlightened lives today and we can all thank him for letting us associate our heads as the beginning and our tails as our end. Merci Cicero!

About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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