The Onion's Business in French Food; 'Mêle-Toi de Tes Oignons'

What do onions in French food have to do with minding your own business?

Mêle-toi de tes oignons - French Idiom with onion
Tony Briscoe (c) Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images.

Onions are an essential part of French cooking. My husband says that it you want to give any dish a French twist, cook it with wine, lots of butter and shallots ("du vin, beaucoup de beurre et des échalotes"). So let’s talk French onions.

The French Word for Onion is 'Oignon'

Although the spelling is weird, the French pronunciation is quite close to the English. The word begins and ends with a nasal "on" sound, thus the “oi” is pronounced like "on." 

  • N’oublie pas d’acheter des oignons s’il te plaît. Don’t forget to buy onions please.
  • D’accord, j’en prends combien? OK, how many should I get?
  • Prends en deux moyens, ou un gros. Get two medium-size ones, or one large one.

Different Types of Onions in French

If you enjoy cooking, knowing the types of onions used in French cuisine will come in handy. There are many different cultivars, and the names vary depending on the region, for example: l’oignon rose de Roscoff (the pink onion of Roscoff), l’onion doré de Mulhouse (the golden onion of Mulhouse). Size and shape will also differ according to the type of onion and region. Here is a list of common onion-related terms. I've included garlic because I thought cooks might find this useful.

  • Un oignon (blanc, jaune, rose, rouge):  a (white, yellow, pink, red) onion
  • Une tête d’ail: a head of garlic (Note that the pronunciation of “ail” is irregular; it sounds like “eye” in English.)
  • Une gousse d’ail: a clove of garlic
  • Une échalote: a shallot
  • Une cébette and un petit oignon vert: scallion
  • La ciboule: spring onion
  • La ciboulette: chive

The French Idiom 'Occupe-toi / Mêle-toi de tes Oignons'

This famous idiom is still very much in use in French. It means: “Mind your own business.” There are some variations relative to how this is expressed, but all mean the same thing: “Mind your own business.” One variation uses "les fesses": The word “les oignons” is a familiar term for “les fesses” (buttocks) due to the onions' round shape.

The resulting expression “Occupe-toi de tes fesses,” while a bit vulgar, is also quite common. Another variation is "Mêle-toi or Occupe-toi de tes affaires," which is an exact translation of "Mind your own business."

  • Alors, c’est vrai ce que j’ai entendu? Tu sors avec Béatrice maintenant?
    So is it true what I’ve heard? You’re going out with Beatrice now?
  • Mêle-toi de tes oignons! Mind your own business!

And for French food lovers, perhaps the most famous French speciality that relies primarily on onions is la soupe à l'oignon. A real French délice!