Tomette tiles and old French keys at an antiques store in the town of Piolenc.

clef or clé*
(klay) noun, feminine
    : key

(from the Latin, "clavis")

*the two spellings are correct

Can you guess what the following terms & expressions mean and do you know of others to add to this list? Answer here, in the comments box.

mettre la clef sous la porte
clefs en main
clé à bougie
la clef des champs
livre à clef*
clef de fa
une clé de sol

mis sous clé
clé RIB
clef USB


* livre à clef (also: roman à clef or roman à clé)

Audio File:  listen to Jean-Marc pronounce today's word and hear the words in the list above: Download clef.wav . Download clef.mp3

Motoring home from the brocante,* tires now crunching over our dirt driveway, I turned to my mom, who was jammed into the passenger seat. It was difficult to see her, as the "antique" that we had just brought home took up the space between us.

"I think we need a Plan B!" said me.

I was hoping Jean-Marc would be out in the vine fields, scanning for remaining grapes, post harvest. Instead, he was fixing the tractor, right there at the front gate! How, now, to tiptoe past my husband with this not-so-petit purchase?: one which amounted to no more than a few old planks of rotting wood studded with a hundred crooked clous.* Surely the Frenchman would think me mad for dragging home a board of rusty nails... even madder for having paid for it!

It was those fallen French keys that were cramping my style. Up until the last hour, that old "board" had been a unique exposition. On display (and currently off...) were over a hundred fat-toothed keys that made the wooden structure a veritable "objet d'art".

...that is, until I turned the board on its side, wrestled it into my car, and proceeded to jingle and jangle all the way home, losing, with each bend and bump in the country road, another coppery clef*. Like that, a pile of rusty keys began to collect on the floorboard below.

Keyboard The first few keys fell off in Piolenc, then another couple outside the town of Orange. In Sérignan, I swerved and, like that, two more slipped off as I avoided a curb... More keys collided and fell, there on the outskirts of Sainte Cécile... and a final bunch bounced off as we pulled into our lot.

What remained was that old "board"... and several shadows where the keys' images were burned into the wood, thanks to the sun. As I pulled the board out of the car, my hands were quickly plastered by cobwebs. I hadn't seen those... It was time now to face my practical-minded husband, time to come up with an explanation for this pathetic-looking, plastered "plank" -- and there would not be time to collect all of the fallen keys from the floorboard: Jean-Marc was approaching the car, like one of those husbands who can sniff a spousal "spenditure" from two farm fields away.

Quick, like any clever countrywoman, where tall tales are as common as wedding bells, I came up with a solution: "speed on by with a cry"...

I picked up that "plank" and peeled past my husband... pedaling my feet as fast as my mouth which pronounced: "No worries about what to get me for our quatorzième* anniversary------------------"

PS: As for what Jean-Marc's getting ... I'm working on it. Here's a hint: I'm turning one of those "tall tales" into a short story... about an old door, some rusty keys, and the secret to life-long liberty.

PSS: for the record, Jean-Marc very much likes the "keyboard".

Freedom keys
une brocante (f) = flea market
un clou (m) = nail
une clef (f) = key
quatorzième = fourteenth

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Did you pick out a place to hang it yet?

jim smith

clef a main: the equivalent, at least in the US, is "turnkey" - everything is ready for the new owner/tenant, everything is ready and in place; all the buyer/owner/renter needs to do is turn the key (to open the door, start the engine, etc.).


Ah I love the French countryside, your article reminds me of the time I spent helping out at my parents place.

Great blog by the way!

Chicora Travel

Ah, the French countryside. Your article reminds me of the time I spent at my parents place.

Great blog by the way!


mettre la clef sous la porte- put (place) the key under the door

mot-clé- key word

Kimberley Lovato

clef de fa = F clef of Bass clef in music

(do re me fa so la ti do)


mettre la clef sous la porte litteraly means to put or slide the key under the door but also means that the person who is renting is leaving without giving notice and is probably behind in the rent.


If I remember correctly from our stint in Paris, the "cle RIB" is your bank/acct info that you provide in order to do a financial transaction, which is conveniently pre-printed in a tear-off section of your bank statement...or something similar!


I love the key board! and I probably would have brought home a few (or many) of those tiles as well!

I wonder if livre à clef is a 'book key' or an index? Just guessing.


I have an obsession with old keys! When I lived in France we would take drives down to the Loire and I would always wonder what old key might open a secret door in a castle. That's the romantic in me!
I love your photos of the old keys and les tomettes.

Visitor Info

Great pronunciations - I can actually understand how they are saying the words. I just bookmarked your site - I'll be back!


Mis sous clé means to lock up.

Mot clé is a key word.

Clefs en main should mean to have the keys in hand.

Is a livre à clé a diary? A locked book?

Jacqueline de Brisbane Qld

Les clés du royaume (Joseph Cronin), une de mes premières lectures de 'jeune fille' dans les années '60!
Les clés du Paradis: ce que l'on recevra lorsqu'on est une bonne petite chrétienne!
Comme les temps ont changés...

Marilyn Munsterman

I found this on the Internet when I was looking for the meaning of "mettre la clef sous la porte.

Mettre les clefs sur la fosse, qui voulait dire : renoncer à la succession de quelqu'un, parce que cette succession était endettée. Fleury de Bellingen (Étymologie des proverbes, page 94) va nous dire cela plus au long, dans son vieux langage.

If you ever decide to auction off this great key board you will have lots of buyers. Look, you are a writer, you need a keyboard!

Jacqueline de Brisbane Qld

Kristin, vos clefs ont ouvert la porte de mes souvenirs d'enfance et mon éducation catholique... Mon Dieu (No offence) :) ...
« Et moi, je te dis que tu es Pierre et que sur cette pierre, je bâtirai mon Église, et que les portes du séjour des morts ne prévaudront point contre elles. Je te donnerai les clés du royaume des cieux..." (Mathieu 16-18 [?])

James Atkin

Good for you. A purchase at a whim are often the ones that you (and us) will rembember for a lifetime. Bon Chance.


What a treasure, Kristin! Is that handsome "plank" perhaps a section of a volet? (shutter)? I seem to see hinges on one side of it. Old keys seem to have a story to tell. Pehaps these will inspire some tales about the places or chests they secured so long ago.

Thérèse-Marie BLAZEK

Merci beaucoup, for your kind note and for adding my bebe blog to your links, that was indeed kind.

These images are superbe. I hope you are continuing you harvest without hunters in the next field. That was a cool post that kept us all on edge...

Many hugs to you and your dear family.

I appreciate that we stay in touch, even if you barely know us here.
Your writings are always my ispiration to go on each day to write more.

A prochaine fois,

Bruce T. Paddock

I'm guessing that a livre à clef, also called a roman à clef, may be what we call in English a "roman a clef": a novel in which actual people are depicted in thinly disguised form.

Hilda Cohen

Here' another: une clef anglaise

Bruce T. Paddock

Here's an odd thing. I seem to remember that a bottle opener -- the old round-on-one-side, triangular-on-the-other-side kind (sometimes called a "church key" in English) -- is called a "French key" in Russian. "Franch-yoos-ka klyoosh" or something like that. I have no idea what it's called in French, though.


Fascinating rusty keys hooked on their amazing "keyboard" for years and years. Thanks for the photos!

->mettre LA CLÉ SOUS LA PORTE / mettre la clé sous le paillasson
Meaning: partir furtivement = to leave furtively.

->une solution CLÉS EN MAIN = a ready-made solution

->une CLÉ À BOUGIE (pour la voiture) = plug spanner
(Several tools are called “CLÉ”, used for tightening or loosening screws for ex)

->un LIVRE À CLÉ = a book in which the characters, events, facts are real, but names have been changed.

->la clé des champs = la liberté (freedom)
Prendre la CLÉ DES CHAMPS / prendre la poudre d'escampette
Meaning: s'échapper = to escape

->une CLÉ USB = a USB key

-> whatever is put “SOUS CLÉ” is put in a place that has been locked.

-> In expressions such as -> un MOT-CLÉ, une FIGURE-CLÉ, un RÔLE-CLÉ, (hyphen not compulsary) the word “clé” (translated by key) means: essential, most important.

Other expressions with “clé”

->In architecture:
la CLÉ DE VOÛTE = the keystone

->détenir la CLÉ DU BONHEUR = to know the secret of true happiness.

Everything makes me believe that "Kristin détient la clé du bonheur"
= "Kristin knows the secret of true happiness".

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