Avoir les jambes en coton

I was reading an article about Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world in 1983 (via hopping from blog to blog, and hence unable to provide a reference), when I saw this sentence: "I was not sweating," Petrov said, "but I felt very weak in my legs. Like our Russian saying goes, I had legs of cotton." We have this saying in French too (avoir les jambes en coton), meaning that you’re so scared that you legs get all wobbly. I can’t think of any other way of expressing it in English, can anyone help?
I always like finding "sister expressions" in other languages; it prompts me to wonder why they exist in some but not others. Was it all due to, say, one French person who went to visit the Russian court all those years ago, translated it literally into Russian, which delighted the locals so much that they started using it, and now, years and years later, it is a common expression in Russian? Or is it just a coincidence that the French and the Russians use the same image to express the same feeling? If I start saying "I have legs of cotton" over and over for the next few years, and manage to contaminate enough English speakers, is there any chance that this expression will end up being adopted in English?

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:25+00:00 February 7th, 2005|Idioms|18 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima February 7, 2005 at 10:32 am

    Your may have legs of cotton, but my legs turned to jelly.

  2. céline February 7, 2005 at 10:37 am

    I should have guessed it would be jelly – so British.

  3. Jean February 7, 2005 at 10:37 am

    I’d just say ‘I went weak at the knees’.

  4. céline February 7, 2005 at 10:42 am

    Philippe on the French side offered “My legs feel like cotton wool”, can the natives confirm that this is also in use (I had heard jelly but not this one)?

  5. Charlotte February 7, 2005 at 10:51 am

    ‘My legs feel like cotton wool’ isn’t a phrase that I would find myself using (especially if I had my finger on the nuclear button and I thought the enemy was attacking…).

  6. ViVi February 7, 2005 at 12:00 pm

    The first phrase that came to mind was “legs like jelly,” so it may be a phrase that the Americans borrowed from the English. 🙂

  7. Edward Dale February 7, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    Speaking of “sister expressions”. A French friend and I (American) were trying to figure out if there was a French equivalent of “like a deer in headlights” meaning you’re kind of wind-eyed, scared and stunned. I forget what the best we could come up with was; it was something like “under the spotlight”, but we decided it didn’t have quite the same meaning. Any ideas?

  8. language hat February 7, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    I agree with Jean that “weak at the knees” is the normal equivalent. I have heard “like jelly.” “My legs feel like cotton wool” does not (as far as I know) exist in English.
    No, I spoke too soon. Googling turns up two (count ’em) hits for “legs feel like cotton wool.” So change “does not exist” to “is vanishingly rare.”
    Oh, and French had a tremendous influence on Russian in the 17th-18th centuries — all educated Russians read and spoke it fluently — so the Russian expression was almost certainly borrowed from French at that time.

  9. Charlotte (different one) February 8, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    As an American, I would also use “jelly”, but also “legs like rubber” as an equivalent.

  10. julien February 8, 2005 at 8:08 pm

    Lady or Dame ?
    This, I admit, has nothing to do in this jelly-legged yellow-belly celebrating thread. It’s not about weak knees, it’s about a hero. After Ellen MacArthur sensational homecoming, she has been made a Dame by the queen and subsequently been called “une Lady” or “Lady Ellen” or “Lady MacArthur” by the French press. So which is it ? Dame, Lady, or both ?

  11. Jean February 8, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    It’s Dame Ellen, not Lady (or rather will be, these titles are only conferred at certain times of year and it’s been announced that’s she’ll get one in the next lot). I Googled for a concise definition of the difference between Dame and Lady (or Baroness), but failed to come up with one. I have a general idea but it’s beyond me to express it clearly – anyone?

  12. Rachel Wrightson February 8, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    Cotton mouth. Frog legs.

  13. Margaret S. February 9, 2005 at 1:42 am

    Also “my legs turned to water.” http://tinyurl.com/5oy3c

  14. Neij February 10, 2005 at 1:05 am

    My instinctive reaction to this is to say “my legs went (or maybe ‘turned’) to jelly”. This is the expression I am most familiar with as a response to fear.
    To me, “I went weak at the knees” is more an expression of swooning giddiness when in the presence of someone for whom you feel a strong attraction. The Headway English course from the venerable OUP seems to agree.
    A search of Google for “weak at the knees” produces loads of song lyrics that could be ambiguous, but “went weak at the knees” produces a considerable number of hits which seem to agree with my interpretation (including some rather, ahem, intimate material).
    Anyone got some good sources for “weak at the knees” meaning “fearful”?

  15. Alexei February 18, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    I guess what Mr. Petrov said in Russian was literally “legs of cotton wool.” I wonder if he was sitting or standing when that happened. It might well be an old calque from French; I’m sure Russian has many more of those.
    “Weak in the knees” (not “at” though): remember The Beatles’ “Honey Pie,” anybody?
    On the literal translation of French idioms: “hors de son assiette ordinaire” became “ne v svoey tarelke” in Russian: “he’s out of his plate.” (On the other hand, this might be a folk etymology. Use dates back to Griboedov, ca. 1820.)

  16. céline February 18, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    Alexei: “hors de son assiette ordinaire”? That’s funny, I only know “ne pas être dans son assiette”.
    Let the 2 expressions have a Googlefight!
    “hors de son assiette ordinaire”: 7 hits
    “pas dans son assiette”: 1600 hits
    Hmmm… where did you hear “hors de son assiette ordinaire”?

  17. Alexei February 19, 2005 at 7:13 am

    Céline, you’re right, the original must have been “pas dans son assiette” because the Russian expression runs, literally, “not in one’s plate.”
    Google tells us that “hors de son assiette ordinaire” is found at least twice in “La Chartreuse de Parme,” but it dates back only to 1838.

  18. céline February 19, 2005 at 9:40 am

    Well Alexei, if it’s good enough for Stendhal, it’s good enough for me…

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