Langues & languages

A Tricky Expression: Tirer son Épingle du Jeu

Agir afin que nos collectivités puissent tirer leur épingle du jeu dans une économie en dents de scie.

Act to ensure that communities can seize the opportunities in a volatile economy.

Recently, I’ve noticed that the expression “tirer son épingle du jeu” has become very popular. I looked it up to find out what it meant and what I discovered surprised me.

Le Petit Robert, 2014, p.907 – Tirer son épingle du jeu : Se dégager adroitement d’une situation délicate, se retirer à temps d’une affaire qui devient mauvaise, sauver sa mise.

The dictionary meaning of the expression doesn’t seem to match the way it is being used. I have seen it used to mean “to succeed” or simply “to take advantage of a situation,” rather than to emerge unscathed from a difficult or tricky situation. Next, I looked it up in the Multidictionnaire, which says on p. 1594, that tirer son épingle du jeu = profiter d’une situation délicate.

For idioms, I like to check the old standard dictionaries. There are clearly two different meanings. Robert Collins states the following on p. 356: tirer son épingle du jeu = 1. bien manoeuvrer = to play one’s game well; 2. s’en sortir à temps = to extricate oneself.


Image source: Présentoirs pour bijoux

Get out now while the going is good or take advantage of the opportunities available?

Irène de Buisseret, on p. 413 of her classic translation guide, Deux langues, six idiomes, reprinted by Denys Goulet, Association des traducteurs et interprètes de l’Ontario, Ottawa: Carlton-Green Pub., 1989, does not recommend translating phrases similar to “to extricate oneself” by tirer son épingle du jeu. This is good advice to avoid ambiguity. Moreover, the expression has now taken on a broader, more positive meaning. Irène provides the following example:

Source: We should get out of the whole business.


The criticized translation is: Nous devrions tirer notre épingle du jeu.

Irène de Buisseret proposes the following translation: Nous devrions en sortir complètement.

A popular expression these days

In the next two examples, the expression has a more positive meaning:

  • Le Québec tire son épingle du jeu, lui qui possède la moitié des effectifs canadiens en traduction.

Quebec benefits from the fact that half of all Canadian translators live there.

  • Pour tirer votre épingle du jeu, vous devez vous préparer à l’entrevue.

The key is to go to the interview prepared.

By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr. “The Word Geek”

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