Il m’a passé un savon.
eel mah paa-say uh saa-VAW. Click below to hear this.*
He gave me a real dressing-down.
Oh dear, this sounds a little improper, in either language. Did I just say he washed me, in French? Did I just say he undressed me, in English?
Nope. I said neither. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an uncomfortable situation, though. It seems I did something wrong, and he scolded me roundly for it. Maybe I misfiled some important papers, or missed a deadline, or told the client the wrong thing. Whatever it was, I’m liable.
So in French, the phrase is He passed me a (cake of) soap. That’s ambiguous; it could mean either he handed me the soap or he rubbed the soap on me, more likely the latter. Remember “yellow soap”, the hard Fels-Naphtha laundry soap? It was used to scrub shirt collars clean and to scrub poison ivy oils off the skin of careless, unsuspecting children. That’s what I’m talking about. That harsh soap was punishment enough.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: