25 French Idioms to Add Colour to Your Conversations | Newsdle

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. 

By the way, if you are interested in a regular dose of French idioms, why not subscribe to the Newsdle Weekly Newsletter. Not only will you receive exclusive updates and sample lessons, but you can learn an Idiom of the Week.  

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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. 

Raconter des Salades

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. 

A Boire Podcast

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 Dennis 

 Nick Dennis

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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