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Photo credit: Shopstyle

Photo credit: Shopstyle

I think we can all agree that les pompes* in the above photo are sérieusement sexy*.

So how did the French expression ‘to be beside your pumps’ come to denote a rather unsexy state of mind?  And why are you beside your pompes and not in them?

As you may know, the French word for shoes is chaussures*. The word pompes came about in the 19th century as a slang word for shoes, allegedly since their flimsier construction let water in via the soles, thereby turning them into little suction pumps (pompes aspirantes).

Since shoes are associated with walking, and therefore the idea of direction, it stands to reason that if you’re not walking in your pompes, but to the side of them, you’re not exactly focused. It describes the idea of doing something without thinking, of not being in the moment, of there being a décalage* between thought and reality. A more dramatic definition describes an angoisse existentielle*, or a difficulty in adapting to the real world.

In English, we have many ways of expressing this idea, though none possibly as evocative as être à côté de ses pompes. We talk of ‘not being with it’, or ‘being out of sorts’ or even ‘being away with the fairies’. Come to think of it, that’s a lovely expression! 

The word pompe is a useful little word. Here are some other meanings:

les pompes = push-ups

  • Mon entraîneur fait 200 pompes avant d'arriver à la salle de sport.
  • My trainer does 200 push-ups before he gets to the gym.

avoir un coup de pompe = to have wave of tiredness

  • Oh là, j’ai un coup de pompe. Je vais faire une petite sieste.
  • Wow, I’m suddenly really tired. I’m going to have a little nap.

être une pompe à fric = to be a money pit

  • Ce bateau est une vraie pompe à fric.
  • That boat is a real money pit.

lâcher les pompes = to leave someone alone

  • C’est ma décision, alors lâche-moi les pompes!
  • It’s my decision, so get off my back!

*pumps | *seriously sexy | *shoes | *gap | *existential anguish