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Six French phrases to use when things go wrong or you have ‘zoned out’

This is French language you don’t learn at school but need in real life, especially if you are not concentrating on a Zoom call

Man zoned out at laptop

The French have an expression to describe your 'zoned out' state Pic: Krakenimages.com / Shutterstock

If you happened to find yourself nodding off or gazing wide-eyed out of the window during a seemingly endless lockdown Zoom meeting, the French have an expression to describe your 'zoned out' state: "être à l'ouest" – literally translated as "being in the West".

Most French etymologists trace the phrase's origin to the English 'Go West' which, in itself has several back-stories – all of them, rather more darkly, referring to death or dying. 

Read more: Au revoir et bon vent: Nine ways to say goodbye in France

For instance, Native American legend tells that a dying man goes west to meet the setting sun, while the phrase is also attributed to British Army soldiers referring to being killed during World War One, as well as being slang used by thieves for whom "to go west" meant "to be hanged".

As for the French take on it, être à l'ouest has a much less intense significance – it simply means to be deep in one's thoughts or away with the fairies. 

Another nuanced state of mind is 'numbness', or engourdissement in French.

Homeward bound

A further (very unlikely) theory is that the Parisian theatre fraternity adopted the idea of 'going west' during the early 20th century.

Ateliers (workshops) and theatres were mainly located in the east of the city, while the actors lived largely in the west. 

So at the end of a performance, the exhausted actor would return to his home in the west with a dazed look.

When it all goes wrong

Switching our linguistic compass southwards, the French have plenty of ways to express things having 'gone south' (ie. gone wrong). 

A situation might have dégénéré, mal tourné or se détourné

For a more common expression, try partir en vrille which means to get out of control or go into a tailspin.

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