25 French Idioms to Add Colour to Your Conversations
French idioms, those quirky expressions that can leave non-French speakers baffled, offer a window into French culture. Although every language makes use of idioms, metaphors, and expressions of speech, the French language is particularly rich and inventive with idioms. So, if you want to fully appreciate the French language, learning a few French idiomatic expressions is a great start.
Learning French idiom expressions can offer several benefits to those studying the language.
- French idioms often have historical or cultural origins. So, learning French idioms can provide insights into the French way of life.
- The French use idioms all the time, in everyday speech, movies, and literature. Familiarity with French idioms can enhance your comprehension skills and make it easier to understand spoken and written French.
- French idiom expressions often convey subtleties and nuances of meaning that may be hard to express otherwise. Learning idioms allows you to communicate with more precision and emotion.
- Using popular French sayings can help you sound more natural and fluent when speaking French.
- Learning idioms can be entertaining. It adds a touch of fun to your studies.
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7 Common French Idioms
Poser un lapin à quelqu’un
Meaning: to stand someone up
Literal translation: to set a rabbit to someone
The origin of this odd but very common French expression dates back to the 19th century. Poser was slang for “making somebody wait” and lapin or “rabbit” was slang for a lady of the night. And so, it meant to leave the girl waiting for payment, and over the decades has come to mean standing someone up.
Avoir la gueule de bois
Meaning: to be hungover
Literal translation: to have a wooden mouth
This French saying describes the heavy, dry feeling in your mouth (gueule is slang for mouth), like wood. The clever Belgians take this saying a step further, giving the hangover a faux medical term “xylostomiasis” made of the Greek word xylo for wood and stomia for mouth.
Un coup de foudre
Meaning: love at first sight
Literal translation: a bolt of lightning
Originally un coup de foudre was used as a metaphor to describe an unexpected and unpleasant event. That the French would then associate an idiom for an unpleasant event with falling in love doesn’t fit our notions of the French as incurable romantics.
Faire la grasse matinée
Meaning: to sleep in
Literal translation: to sleep in, or to have a lie-in
The French were having ‘fat mornings” as far back as the 16th century. But why fat? Could it be because it is associated with soft, creamy things like a cozy bed? Another explanation: 18th-century linguists hypothesised that sleeping in helped you put on weight (voluptuousness being a much-admired thing in those days).
Mettre son grain de sel
Meaning: to stick one’s nose in
Literal translation: to put one’s grain of salt
Obviously, a grain of salt is not worth much, so this is used in a negative sense: giving your opinion when no one has asked for it. In English when we say we take something with a grain of salt, we are also using the grain of salt as a metaphor for something worthless. These expressions originate from a Latin expression, cum grano salis.
Avoir la patate
Meaning: to be full of beans, to be in excellent form
Literal translation: to have the potato
The origins of this idiomatic French expression aren’t clear, perhaps people thought the potato had a nice shape. The French saying was first used early in the 20th century, then in the 70s a derivative emerged, avoir la frite or have the chip/French fry. During the coronavirus epidemic, the expression had a resurgence, and the meaning was a more general "to be in good health"
Raconter des salades
Meaning: tell stories, spin yarns.
Literal translation: to tell salads
A salad is made up of a lot of different ingredients that are easy and pleasant to digest. And so, when you tell a tall tale or implausible story, you need to serve up to the listener a mixture of facts, half-facts, distortions, and exaggerations – a salad of lies.
9 Funny French Idioms
Aller se faire cuire un œuf
Meaning: go jump in the lake
Literal translation: go and cook yourself an egg
This expression is on the familiar side (so don’t use it on your boss), but it seems a pretty mild way to tell someone to leave you alone. It’s another one with unknown origins, but the most popular explanation is that it goes back to the days when the kitchen was the woman’s domain, and most men didn't know how to cook. So, the implication was a wife telling her husband: Go cook an egg! Oh, that's right – you don't know how!
Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter
Meaning: to have bigger fish to fry
Literal translation: to have further cats to whip
As we shall see, the French like their cat idioms. This is another French expression with no clear origin. Some suggest it is a derivative of another expression, il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat – see below.
Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
Meaning: no need to get your knickers in a knot
Literal translation: there is nothing to whip a cat about
This French idiomatic expression dates from the 17th century. Cats are pretty quick on their feet, so although I’ve never tried it, I imagine that whipping a cat would be next to impossible. Therefore, whipping a cat is akin to a useless, futile action
Pipi de chat
Meaning: something of no importance
Literal translation: cat wee
In French slang, it means an insignificant, unimportant thing – though whoever invented the phrase has obviously never tried to get it out of the carpet. It’s also used to describe poor-quality wine, but I think that's universal, not just a French thing.
Les doigts dans le nez
Meaning: to do something easily
Literal translation: fingers in the nose
This conjures a funny mental image of someone performing a task with their fingers in their nose. Its origins, however, stem from horse racing, where a jockey is winning so comfortably that they don't need both hands on the reins.
Donner de la confiture aux cochons
Meaning: to cast pearls before a swine
Literal translation: to give jam to the pigs
This expression originates from the Bible. English uses the original Bible expression “casting pearls before swine”, but the French give it a culinary twist. Giving delicious jam to a pig would be a complete waste because pigs will eat any rubbish you give them.
Se noyer dans un verre d’eau
Meaning: (to be unable to cope with the slightest difficulty)
Literal translation: to drown in a glass of water
The meaning is quite clear: you’d have to be very inept or hopeless to manage to drown in a glass of water. Even droler was the expression they had back in the 18th century: se noyer dans un crachat or “drown in spit”.
À boire ou je tue le chien!
Meaning: Service! And make it quick!
Literal translation: Bring me a drink or I’ll kill the dog!
I’m not sure how often this expression is used in daily life in France, but it’s funny enough to be used as a podcast title, a comic book, and a t-shirt slogan. It’s said/shouted to show that you want to be served quickly. Apparently, in the Middle Ages, the wine barrels were guarded by dogs, so if the customer wasn’t served, he would threaten to serve himself and kill the guard dog to do it.
Parler français comme une vache espagnole
Meaning: to butcher the French language
Literal translation – to speak French like a Spanish cow
Let’s hope no one says this to your face because it is not complimenting your French skills. Originally in the 17th century, the French idiom was to “speak like a Spanish Basque” (the word for Basques being vasces). Over the centuries, variations of this expression have emerged, such as parler comme une vache espagnole, and parler anglais comme une vache espagnole, both implying an inability to speak a second language.
5 Clever French Idioms
Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez
Meaning: to lose your temper
Literal translation: to have the mustard climbing up to the nose
If you’ve ever eaten too much hot mustard you will know the sensations: watery eyes, flushed face, runny nose. In other words, these are involuntary physical reactions, similar to when someone loses their temper and begins displaying involuntary physical effects.
Être comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau
Meaning: to be at a complete loss for what to do
Literal translation: to be like a hen who has found a knife
Actually, this expression can be used in three ways: to describe someone clumsy (as a hen would be with a knife), to describe someone who is disconcerted and confused (the way a hen would be with something it doesn’t know what to do with), and also it can be used to describe an absurd situation.
Manger/bouffer/sucer les pissenlits par la racine
Meaning: to be dead
Literal translation: to eat/suck the dandelions by the root
No explanation is needed for this very morbid French idiom, especially if you know that in the 19th century when the expression originated, many people were buried directly in the ground (without coffins). Clever idiom, though I wouldn’t name a restaurant after it, as someone has in the Breton town of Brest.
Avoir un cœur d’artichaut
Meaning: to fall easily in love
Literal translation: to have an artichoke heart
Artichokes, you may know, are a vegetable where layers of leaves protect the edible part, the ‘heart’ of the vegetable. But the original expression was slightly longer, cœur d’artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde or “artichoke heart, one leaf for everyone”, the meaning being “lots of leaves, lots of loves”.
S’en moquer comme de l’an quarante
Meaning: to not care less
Literal translation: to care as little about it as the year 40.
Over the ages, there were several prophecies that the world would end in the 40th year of a century, eg 1040, 1740, 1840. Naturally, none of these predictions came true, allowing everyone to poke fun at these superstitious beliefs.
4 French Idioms with Literary Origins
Revenir à ses moutons
Meaning: to get back on topic
Literal translation: to go back to one’s sheep
This expression comes from a 15th-century French comedy, La Farce de Maître Pathelin by Anonymous. A trader, Guillaume, is cheated first by someone selling him sheets then has his sheep stolen by a shepherd. Guillaume takes the stolen sheep case to court but in recounting what happened, keeps mixing up the details of the sheet case and the sheep case. The confused judge then orders Guillaume: Revenons à ces moutons!
Avoir le cafard
Meaning: to be feeling down
Literal translation: to have the cockroach
Most people agree that this French idiom was invented by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in his masterwork, Les Fleurs du mal as a metaphor for melancholy. Less clear is why he would choose to associate the irrepressible cockroach with sorrow and dejection.
Tomber dans les pommes
Meaning: to faint
Literal translation: to fall in the apples
This French idiomatic expression is believed to be derived from an expression invented by the French novelist George Sand to describe a great tiredness, “being in the cooked apples”.
Un train de sénateur
Meaning: to move slowly
Literal translation: a senator’s train
This expression doesn’t originate from a frustration with the slow pace of political decision-making, but rather to describe the solemn processional manner that Roman senators entered the forum. The great French writer Le Fontaine was one of the first to use it as a metaphor in his Fables: “The Hare lets the Tortoise move in his senatorial train…”
Learning French idioms is not only an engaging aspect of language acquisition but also a valuable tool for gaining insight into the culture and history of France. Idioms offer unique ways to express emotions and ideas, enriching your language skills and allowing you to communicate with precision and flair. Whether you're drawn to the funny, common, or clever idioms, these expressions will enhance your understanding of the French language and its rich heritage.
Nick is an English teacher who has taught English as a Foreign Language in China, Italy and France. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Modern Languages), majoring in French, from the University of New South Wales. He loves travel, reading and football and, of course, learning languages. Four years ago, Nick and his wife co-founded an online English language school targeted at the Chinese market (since sold to Chinese investors). He has also ghost-written the autobiography of a well-known Australian horse trainer.
Extensive reading in French will not only unlock the beauty of the French language but also gain insights into its culture and heritage. Happy reading, and enjoy exploring new worlds through the pages of French texts!
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