En outre, j’ai remarqué que cette initiative avait remis pour moi une forme de sens dans des conférences parfois un peu trop orientées « business ». Le business, c’est chouette, mais on aura l’air malin si la Terre n’a plus d’arbre…

Bref, tout ceci m’a poussé à chercher un moyen de faire beaucoup mieux que ces quelques milliers d’arbres que je pouvais planter seul dans mon coin. (https://nicolasberetti.com/2017/10/26/des-conferences-qui-plantent-des-arbres-speaker4earth/)

I think this is an ironic expression, but what does it exactly mean? Is it always used ironically?

3 Answers 3


It means 'we will look stupid'. It is always used ironically.


Malin is an interesting word as it started to be negative only (qui fait [du/le/∅] mal, "doing evil") but evolved to a shifted alternate positive meaning ("being astute, smart").

As in you question, it is also often used in antiphrasis, so both of these sentences are negatives, although with a slight difference:

Il a l'air malin.

Il n'a pas l'air malin.

In the first case, the person has just done something or is affected by something that just happen, and is looking stupid. This is a temporary state.

In the second one, the person just doesn't look smart. This is more of a permanent state. If you are familiar with Spanish, that's a typical use case of estar/ser difference.

Depending on the context, il a l'air malin might also be used a positive way (he looks smart).

Note also that malin has two feminines, maligne and maline. The second one is prevailing nowadays, especially when "smart" is the expected meaning.

Finally, you migh read either of these three sentences:

Elle a l'air maligne. (old fashioned)

Elle a l'air maline. (usual)

Elle a l'air malin.

In both first case, mali(g)ne applies to elle (elle a l'air d'être maline, "she looks smart/stupid*)

In the last one, malin applis to air (look), which is a masculine word ("she has a smart/stupid look").


While "On aura l’air malin si ..." does translate as "we will look smart/stupid if ...", the fundamental idea that this invariably ironic turn of phrase conveys in this context is rather:

We are on a fool's errand if we're looking to expand our business without any concern for the environment.

... with "a fool's errand" referring to "a pointless undertaking".

  • It doesn't translate literally to we will look stupid, more like we'll look clever, as in we'll look pretty clever when there are no trees left.
    – user20927
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 6:53
  • @Minty What you said ! Just happened to copy the phrase in Jurgen's answer without thinking twice. Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 7:03
  • :-) I do that sort of thing all the time. I see you've edited it now anyway.
    – user20927
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 7:33

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