Thanks to Céline of Naked Translations, I’ve learned a new French expression: découvrir le pot aux roses, which she says means ‘to find out what’s going on’ and my Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French by René James Hérail and Edwin A. Lovatt defines as ‘to stumble on a bit of scandal.’ It’s apparently often misunderstood as “poteau rose,” so Chris Waigl of serendipity is using poteaux roses as a French equivalent of “eggcorns” (first sighted here) for the purposes of her eggcorn database. (If any of my Russian readers know of a Russian word or phrase that’s sometimes replaced by a semantically clearer, though historically incorrect, version, like “eggcorn” for acorn or “poteau rose” for pot aux roses, please mention it in the comments.)

The interesting thing about découvrir le pot aux roses is that it’s not at all clear how the expression came about. For one thing, roses are not grown in pots, and there is no such thing as a pot aux roses in other contexts (hence the eggcorn potential). One theory is that the reference was originally to rose in the sense of ‘rouge,’ which makes perfect sense of the expression, since it would mean “discovering the secret of what you thought had been a woman’s natural beauty”; alas, as Francparler.com points out, the expression has always had roses, plural, so that won’t wash. There’s further discussion at the entry in the dictionary at the excellent Langue française site (“Dépannage en français, difficultés, (bon) usage, syntaxe, orthographe, vocabulaire, étymologie, débats et dossiers thématiques”—I love their epigraph « C’est quand les accents graves tournent à l’aigu que les sourcils sont en accent circonflexe. »).

The Hérail-Lovatt book, by the way, says “Few expressions containing the word pot have literal meanings. Most, like se manier le pot: to ‘put one’s skates on’, to hurry up and en avoir plein le pot: to be fed-up, are figurative derivations.” The listed meanings are ‘arse, bum, behind’; ‘luck, good fortune’; ‘drink, alcoholic beverage’; and ‘pot, kitty, pool of money staked at cards’; these are followed by phrases like faire son pot ‘to make one’s pile, amass a tidy sum of money,’ pot de colle ‘limpet-bore, tenacious button-holer,’ and tourner autour du pot ‘to beat about the bush, to tackle a problem or a situation in a dilly-dally manner’; the last of these is découvrir le pot aux roses, followed by the useful note “Because of a possible hiatus, the ‘t’ in pot is pronounced as a liaison in colloquial contexts.” An exemplary book (note that most definitions include both a colloquial equivalent and a literal explanation), which any reader of French literature (not to mention l’internet!) should have at hand.


  1. John Emerson says

    Couldn’t it be something like “find the goodies hidden in the rose bushes”.

  2. Pardon the inner pedant in me, lh… I don’t know about common usage in France, but in Canada ‘Internet’ dosen’t take a definite article. The government says so (Source: Quebec Gov’t’s Office de la langue française web site).

  3. Thank you for this terrific article. I am preparing a post to further explore pot aux roses, and this is what I have found out: TLF and the Robert Historique de la Langue Française agree that the original meaning was récipient contenant de l’essence de roses, ie a recipient for rose essence or perfume. Découvrir is then understood literally, as dis-cover, take off the cover, which sets the scent free.
    What I find so attractive about poteau(x) rose(s) (lit. “pink pole”) as an equivalent for “eggcorn” is not it is a common misspelling for pot aux roses (it isn’t; the substitutions are overwhelmingly jocular, including in film and literature), but that it has undergone the double eggcornification process, just like æcern->acorn->eggcorn. In both cases, the first step has been mostly forgotten, and only shows up as a pinch of folk etymology in the history of the word/expression.
    Oh, and about Internet (proper noun) vs l’internet (common noun), usage in French is so wildly mixed, with a tendency towards common noun use. To muddy things further, an argument can be made to employ sur internet, without (visible) article but as a common noun, analogous to sur mer. The efforts of the Québec government are often laudable and helpful (and sometimes imported by France), but I really think they are fighting a lost cause here.

  4. Oh, and just to point out that it should be “her”, not “his”.

  5. “For one thing, roses are not grown in pots…”
    Armature horticulturist in apartments and houses with poor soil in the deserts grow roses in pots.
    Perhaps one normally thinks that “…roses are not grown in pots..” which is close enough for linguistic purposes I suppose.

  6. Oh, and just to point out that it should be “her”, not “his”.
    Woops, sorry — I’ll fix it!

  7. Alex Smaliy says

    Hello. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. In response to your query about a Russian equivalent for “eggcorn,” I’ve always been impartial to “бутерврот,” and have actually seen it in (non-pun-related) use.

  8. Not merely for pedantry, I point out that “récipient” means “receptacle, vessel”, not “recipient”.
    Le petit Robert says this, at pot, along with more at other entries:
    Découvrir le pot aux roses [potoroz], le secret d’une affaire, d’une intrigue (cf. Éventer la mèche*). « Au cas où le pot aux roses serait découvert » (F. Mauriac).
    Perhaps also relevant to some of the discussion here is the following, at envoyer:
    3… Fam. Envoyer qqn sur les roses, lui faire comprendre de façon peu aimable qu’il importune. « Tu iras l’inviter à danser ? Oui. Probable qu’elle m’enverra sur les roses » (J. Cau).

  9. O, and this topic reminds me of a curious exchange in letters to The Age (a major Australian newspaper) just the other day. Someone wrote in with this:
    In his article “Rice charms Europe, but Middle East may be tougher” (The Age, 12/2), Michael Gawenda [former Age editor] writes: “Le Figaro headlined its story on her speech this way: ‘With an impeccable silhouette, she put the “le” back in the new diplomacy’. Something may have been lost in translation here…”
    Something is indeed lost in translation – but the real damage was done by whoever changed “la” to “le”. The French for “diplomacy” is “la diplomatie” – i.e. it is a feminine word, “la”, not “le”. And that is the whole crux of Le Figaro’s joke.
    What Le Figaro actually wrote was: “Mme Rice, tailleur noir, collier de perles et silhouette impeccablement droite, a redonne [sic] le ‘la’ de la ‘nouvelle diplomatie’ americaine [sic].” Translation: “Miss Rice, black suit, pearl necklace, and impeccably straight silhouette, has put the ‘la’ back in the American ‘new diplomacy’.”
    I’m sure a number of us wrote to correct the correction, including myself. Of course “donner le la” means “to give the A”, as an oboe might sound the pitch A440 for the orchestra to tune to. So “Mme Rice”, as Le Figaro styles her, in fact “re-set the tone”.

  10. Noetica is right, of course. Sometimes I get confused between English and French. I’ll write “receptacle” ten times.

  11. First, I thought that the pot aux roses was an euphemism like “honeypot”, like in
    “… its charming room for privacy: its water closet(WC); lavatory; honeypot. The room of:- wash & rest; men & women; powder & bath; little boys & little girls; altar & throne; ladies & gentlemen; his & hers; cowboys & cowgirls. The comfort station; privy; latrine; garderobe; head; amenity; necessarium; potty; can; chamber of commerce; john or jane.” (from http://www.rebeccasreads.com).
    Then, I wonder if the “la” thing might be a reference to the “it” girl, Clara Bow.

  12. One of the most pervasive Russian egg corns is “власть придержащие”. The proper idiom “власти предержащие” is an archaism of Church-Slavonic origin. It means “superior powers”. Since “предержащие” is now obsolete, it is reinterpreted as “придержащие”, something akin to “придерживающие”, “holding” with archaic sounding.

  13. My interpretaton of “pot aux roses” would be by analogy to the term “tasse à café”, the cup destined for coffee. This would make the meaning of the expression “the flower pot destined for roses”, – the rose pot – and the whole expression would mean something like “to discover where the flower pot -the honey pot – the money pot – is hidden” – to reveal the underlying motivation.

  14. Alex: Thanks, and googling бутерврот got me this list (not all eggcorns by any means, but very funny).

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