I'm reading the lyrics to Le Grand Jour, a song from the musical Les Misérables. I found this line from Javert.

Leur émeute en culottes courtes,
Je la suivrai dans leurs rangs;
Je les tousserai sans qu'ils s'en doutent...
Demain c'est le jugement dernier.

He's talking about crushing the revolution which he considers to be made of weak little schoolboys. What is the meaning of "Je les tousserai..."? I only can find evidence that it means 'to cough'.

  • 5
    Note that it is not a reflexive use: reflexive means that a pronoun is used as direct or indirect object and refers to the subject, eg je me lave.
    – Greg
    Jul 30, 2020 at 5:44
  • 3
    @Greg Correct. This is a transitive use. Tousser can be transitive ("tousser du sang") but the meaning of this song is a bit strange
    – Madlozoz
    Jul 30, 2020 at 15:23

3 Answers 3


"Je les tousserai" means "I will cough them".

How you interpret it is up to you. Ultimately those are song lyrics so it's an art piece and interpretation is personal.

The first question would be: what does the pronoun "them" refers to? Because earlier in the paragraph, there is a mention of "leur émeute" (their riot), the pronoun is referring to the same subject: the persons rioting.

When you read the full lyrics you realize that the line was written in order to rhyme with an earlier line "Je les pousserai sans qu'ils s'en doutent".

My guess is, the author was looking for a rhyme. There's no true meaning to the sentence (one doesn't actually "cough" someone else) so again, the interpretation or the poetic meaning is left to you.

  • 2
    cnrtl.fr/lexicographie/Tousser : − Empl. trans., rare. Tousser la mort. « La vieille tousse son âme par petits morceaux du matin au soir » (Murger, Scènes vie jeun., 1851, p. 49), et dans le sens de l’auteur : − P. anal. [Le suj. désigne un moteur à explosion] Émettre quelques explosions saccadées au moment du démarrage. "Le moteur toussait, râlait, renâclait sans se décider. Et, soudain, il partit: « Tap, tap, tap »" (Duhamel, Terre promise, 1934, p. 84).
    – Personne
    Jul 30, 2020 at 7:45
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    The other answers give interesting examples of what it could mean. This answer recognizes that they all could be correct.
    – colorlace
    Jul 31, 2020 at 18:00

Tousser is indeed an intransitive verb, so this is a case of "poetic licence".

If we accept that it is used here as part of a metaphor, here is my interpretation: tousser, just like to cough, means to expel air out of your lungs, usually to expel something supposedly bad for your body (germs, fluids, foreign particles, etc). Metaphorically, Paris (or France, or society at large) is the body, and rioters are like germs: Javert wants to expel them and get rid of them.


I learned something today...

If you refer to the french Wiktionary entry for tousser, you'll notice the usual intransitive meaning (to cough), but also a second, "rare", transitive meaning:

Tousser quelqu'un : manifester, par un toussotement, de la désapprobation à ce qu'il dit ou à ce qu'il fait.

Which means disapprove the words or acts of someone by coughing. The example is of course from Victor Hugo, which is quite fitting here.

Note that in the common language, there are actually transitive forms of tousser where the object is what is being coughed (blood, most often: tousser du sang).

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