Checking my referrer log, I just discovered a blog I wish I’d known about earlier, dormir debout. On the about page, the author (who goes by “kato” in the comment threads) says:

dormir debout – a French expression meaning, literally, ‘to sleep standing.’ Usually used in the expression ‘une histoire à dormir debout,’ meaning “a story at which to sleep standing,” in other words, a really boring story. So boring, in fact, that despite the act of standing usually discouraging sleeping, one passes right out….

Currently working on my MA in Zoroastrian Studies/Old Iranian languages at SOAS.

There’s much discussion of Arabic language and literature, including occasional quotation of Arabic poetry with translation and commentary; I noted with interest a post on 17th-century Egyptian curses. Unfortunately, there have been no updates since December. I hope it’s just on hiatus rather than defunct.

Update (Aug. 2022). The blog has been defunct for some years; the latest post seems to have been 19th Century Libyan Wolves (4 April 2011).


  1. “Une histoire à dormir debout” does not mean that it is boring, but that it is absurd or improbable.
    Cf. Trésor de la langue française :
    Au fig. (Un conte, une histoire, des propos, etc.) à dormir debout. Qui manque de vraisemblance, de sérieux, de logique ou d’intérêt. Des raisonnements philosophiques, vagues, rebattus, à dormir debout (Stendhal, Racine et Shakspeare, 1823, p. 45). L’histoire n’est qu’une histoire à dormir debout (Renard, Journal, 1901, p. 665).

  2. Agreed with ThG and Trésor de la langue française. Wondering where karo got that other gloss.
    It’s a fairly common phrase, in French.

  3. I suppose the idea is that “sleeping standing up” is something absurd and improbable. But by using “à” instead of “de” the French are here, once again, willfully making life difficult for furriners. Surely une histoire de dormir debout is what one would expect the expression to be. As in the everyday, fragmented-sentence interjection: … Histoire de, for example in this histoire de rien:

    Un – Aujourd’hui, rien … pas d’histoire…
    Deux – On ne va pas en faire toute une histoire !
    Un – Car pour faire une histoire …
    Deux – Il ne faut pas partir de rien.
    Un – Et là c’est quand même quelque chose !
    Deux – Quelle histoire !
    Un – Quelle histoire ?
    Deux – Que faire ? Car il faut de la matière pour la faire …
    Un – Quelle affaire !
    Deux – Quelle affaire ?
    Un – La belle affaire !
    Deux – Rien à faire, il faut la faire !
    Un – Allez laissez-moi, j’ai à faire pour la faire.
    deux – Ca a l’air de rien à faire.
    Un – Et quand on n’a rien à faire, on peut bien faire quelque chose.
    Deux – Quelque chose sur rien à quoi ça sert ?
    Un – Alors rien ne sert de faire toute une histoire !
    Deux – Justement ça sert à éviter de n’avoir rien à faire !
    Un – Quelle histoire !
    Deux – Quelle affaire !
    Un – Donc histoire de faire quelque chose pour éviter de ne rien faire, on a écrit cette histoire …
    Deux – Et mine de rien, on a fait cette histoire qui n’a l’air de rien …
    Un – Mais qui raconte quelque chose…
    Deux – A partir de rien !

  4. Good catch, I should have looked it up myself instead of taking the blogger’s word for it. My big Larousse bilingual gives “cock and bull story, tall story”; elle a raconté au juge une histoire à dormir debout “she told the judge a pack of lies.”

  5. But maybe it’s self-referential cleverness? The explanation of the phrase is itself une histoire à dormir debout!

  6. As a forrinner myself, I found “histoire à dormir debout” more intuitive. Because it’s a story that enables others to sleep standing thereto, while a “histoire de rien”, or a “histoire de faire quelque chose pour éviter de ne rien faire” sounds like the content of the story.

  7. Ah, I said some complete crap. ‘Cause it’s “dormir debout”, the content of the story, which is absurd.

  8. I’d be interested to hear native speaker’s intuitions about the underlying etymology, but unlike Grumbly Stu, I was not taught that it’s a story as improbable as one about sleeping standing up, but rather one that causes the listener to fall asleep standing up. The idea being perhaps that it’s from the land of dreams.
    Isn’t some such premise a part of the frame story in Diderot’s “L’Oiseau blanc, conte bleu?”

  9. No no, MMcM, I was not taught anything about what the expression means. I had never encountered it. I just thought – as Hat did, and as you apparently do also – that une histoire à dormir debout should be “one that causes the listener to fall asleep standing up”. That is, such a story is boring, not implausible. An implausible story should be une histoire de dormir debout, if anything – along the lines of histoire de cul, histoire de fous, and the rather frequent histoire de … (“it’s a matter of …”, “[so} I’m/we’re dealing with …”) at the beginning of a sentence, as in my quote above – without the accompanying verb phrase such as c’est une or il s’agit de that one would otherwise expect.
    The histoire à expression I construe like c’est à rire, and along the lines of the German [es ist] zum Kotzen: “it’s enough to make you puke”, rendered in cod-German jokes as “it is to puke”. Of course the German may be misleading me.
    Histoire d’espérer que marie-lucie intervienne.

  10. The worst of it is that English is just as unpredictable as French. I keep getting riled about implausibilities in French: then I notice that I have zoomed over the cliff edge and am suspended briefly in the air before falling, like the coyote in Roadrunner.

  11. Hat-
    Thanks for the plug! I suppose the MA has been keeping me away from the my blog, but now that some of your glorious readers are trickling over, I guess I’d better get updating!
    Regarding the name, I learned like Grumbly Stu that it is something to sleep standing at. I’ve heard it used recently with – besides stories – jokes, lectures, etc.

  12. I’ve heard it used recently with – besides stories – jokes, lectures, etc.
    Used by genuwine French guys and dolls, or by furriners like myself who got the wrong end of the slyly proffered stick ?

  13. stew: “sleeping standing up” is something absurd and improbable
    Only if you’re not a horse.

  14. Brilliant connection, Crown ! There’s a German expression that fits perfectly into this context of standing sleeping horses. When someone A is relating that someone else B has told A something implausible and absurd, A can say: B hat mir eins vom Pferd erzählt [B told me a story about a horse].
    Are horses particularly unreliable when asleep ?

  15. I think that this “Dormir debout” expression is related to another expression: “Endormir quelqu’un”: litteraly “to lull somebody to sleep”. This last one is used as a substitute term of “to lie”. You will tell someone “une histoire a dormir debout” in order to put him asleep and avoid a possible strong reaction…

  16. I’ve found them to be much more reliable when they’re asleep.

  17. You will tell someone “une histoire a dormir debout” in order to put him asleep and avoid a possible strong reaction…
    Maybe. I still have a feeling that there’s a mackerel in the mousse au chocolat. We’re speculating from the outside looking in. There must be an observant native speaker (m*-l*, I’m looking at you) who will kindly help us out here.
    Failing that, I now incline towards Hat’s idea that this is some kind of self-referential cleverness. I just asked a guy in the CIA that I know. He says they have the French marked down as being especially fond of that ruse. He says they make up phrases that furriners will fret over, thus distracting their attention from French foreign policy details.

  18. Anybody have any ideas about the English translation of “noyer le poisson”?

  19. My Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French says “To cloud and confuse the issue with an avalanche of irrelevant facts.”

  20. des contes a dormir debout – si depourvus de sens qu’on s’endormir en les écoutant.
    dormir debout – étre très fatigué
    Source:А.А. Сырейщикова “Идиоматика французского языка на основе лексических гнёзд” Москва, 1948

  21. That seems circular. Which is to say, I’m not included to believe that something dépourvu de sens will make us Anglo-Saxons sleepy. I’m coming round to Grumbly Stu’s supposition that there could be a missing link.

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