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C’est sûrement pas avec les misérables trois sous que sa femme le laisse mettre de côté chaque mois qu'il aurait pu acheter cette bagnole !

In conversation, I usually use "trois sous" to refer to a pittance, a negligible amount of money, just like above. I'm wondering if the expression can, by extension, be used adjectivally in the sense of "two-bit {worthless}", as in "a two-bit minister" -- since both "trois sous" and "two-bit" have a monetary origin.

Can you say, for instance:

ces trois sous ministres

... at the risk of it being misconstrued as "ces trois sous-ministres"?

Incidentally, does "trois sous" originally come from "trois francs six sous"?

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If you want to keep the mention of trois sous, you then have to say:

ces ministres à trois sous

This is the standard usage of the preposition à used for indicating the value of something:

J'ai acheté des carottes à 3 euros le kilo.

Prends-moi un paquet à 5 euros.

une paire de chaussures à 100 dollars

la question à 1000 euros

  • Ah, so even in its figurative sense, is "trois sous" treated like a numerical value? At any rate, is the form "X à trois sous" commonly used in the sense of "two-bit X"? – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jun 14 at 13:51
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    Yes, definitely. I just think à trois sous or à trois francs six sous sound a bit old-fashioned, a more modern (but less formal) variant would be à deux balles. – Greg Jun 14 at 13:55
  • You think "trois sous" in my 1st example falls on the old-fashioned side as well? – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jun 14 at 14:49
  • That is open to discussion, but that is how I perceive it. Nowadays, sou is mostly used as a simple familiar (almost childish) word for "money" (e.g. "ça coûte beaucoup de sous") or in idioms such as "sans un sou" but has lost the meaning of an actual monetary unit. – Greg Jun 14 at 17:14
  • Cette réponse ne vaut pas un kopek... vous vous êtes fatigué pour des clopinettes. Just kidding :) I think you should add your comment about deux balles in the body of the answer. – Steph Jun 16 at 9:36
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Au Québec on dirait « à cinq cennes », « de pacotille, qui ne vaut pas cher » (Wiktionnaire) : cependant je trouve des ministres à cinq cennes plutôt inusité. Je dirais « ces vauriens de ministres », mais c'est surtout la valeur morale, quoiqu'un être humain n'ait pas de valeur monétaire de toutes façons. On pourrait dire « sans valeur » directement, j'opterais pour l'utilité avec « inutile », voire « insignifiant » qui peut signifier sans valeur. De manière usuelle à l'oral j'emploierais quelque chose comme « ces insignifiants/inutiles de ministres » ; plus régulièrement avec l'adjectif suivant ministre(s).

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I don't have enough reputation to comment but I wanted to add those precisions :

Trois sous in your first example isn't correct usage. That a man has only trois sous means basically that he possesses three coins.

The correct usage, as Greg said is à trois sous. So you wouldn't translate it as two-bit but as that worth nothing therefore the phrase un ministre à trois sous, as Greg said, can be translated as A minister worth peddling little.

Three coins may seem a lot for something worthless, but trois sous actually means three ancient francs, which is worth, including inflation, 0.00456€.

  • The 1st one was what I came up with as an example myself. While I meant "trois sous" to be taken figuratively, is it interpreted as a specific amount of money: "3 coins"? – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jun 14 at 14:56
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    It can be interpreted both literally and figuratively in your first exemple, depending on the general context. If you're writing a story about the France of the 19th Century, it will be interpreted as literally, otherwise, it will be figuratively. – Thryn Jun 14 at 15:07
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    Trois sous does not mean "three ancient francs". The sou existed long before francs came into use (14th century in France). In its latest use in France (1950's) a sou was the twentieth part of an ancien franc. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Jun 14 at 18:19
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Short answer: no, this is not used (at least in France). In a colloquial way, you could say "ces ministres à deux balles", preserving your monetary reference, but keep in mind that it is indeed really colloquial.

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