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Like all languages, French is rich in idioms – expressions that mean something other than their literal meaning. Spend enough time in France and you may hear people talking about having mustard up their nose, a hair in the hand, a wooden mouth, or a hand in the bag. What does this all mean?
Below I'll share some weird and wonderful examples of widespread French idioms. They should be handy if you want to understand what French people are saying – just try not to think about them too literally.
1. “Il fait un temps de chien!”
Imagine you're walking around Paris with a friend and it starts to rain heavily. Your friend curses, and exclaims il fait un temps de chien! – literally, “it's dog weather!”. This is a French way of saying that the weather is very bad – similar to the English expression “it's raining cats and dogs!”.
2. “Ta gueule!”
French has two words for “mouth”. There's bouche, which means the mouth of a human, and gueule, which is used for the mouth of other animals. (Gueule might also be translated as “muzzle” or “maw”.)
So “ferme ta gueule!” in French – often shortened to just “ta gueule!” – means “shut your mouth!”, i.e. “shut up!' or “be quiet!”, but it has an extra layer of meaning that's hard to convey in an English translation. Because you're saying “gueule” instead of “bouche”, you're implying that the person you're talking to is an animal. So it's not very polite!
3. “Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez”
This colourful expression literally means to have mustard going up your nose, and it can be translated as to lose your temper or simply to be angry.
It's easy to imagine where this expression comes from. Just imagine how you'd feel if you inhaled a big dollop of mustard!
4 . “Avoir le cafard”
A cafard is a cockroach. If you avoir le cafard you literally “have the cockroach”, which means to feel sad, be depressed, have the blues or be down in the dumps. I guess the sight of a cockroach isn't typically something that cheers people up.
5. “Avoir les chevilles qui enflent”
Avoir les chevilles qui enflent means “to have ankles that swell”. If a French person tells you that your ankles are swelling, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should see a doctor. The problem may in fact be your ego.
In French you say someone has swollen ankles if they're being excessively proud or arrogant. It's similar in meaning to the English expressions “to be full of yourself” or to be “big-headed”.
6. “Couper les cheveux en quatre”
In English, if someone is being meticulous or pedantic, we might accuse them of splitting hairs. In France, you'd say tu coupes les cheveux en quatre – “you're cutting the hair into four pieces”. It's like the English expression, except they specify exactly how many pieces you're splitting the hairs into.
7. “Péter un plomb”
Péter un plomb literally means to break or blow a fuse. The meaning isn’t completely lost when translated – it means “to go crazy” or “to get very angry”.
8. “Avoir un poil dans la main”
Avoir un poil dans la main means “to have a hair in one's hand”. Idiomatically, it means “to be lazy” – so lazy that you've let a hair grow out of your palm!
9. “Avoir un chat dans la gorge”
Once you've shaved your palms, you might want to get the cat out of your mouth. Avoir un chat dans la gorge means to “have a cat in your throat”. Like the English expression “to have a frog in your throat”, this means that you have a sore throat or a heavy cough.
10. “Quand les poules auront des dents”
When will Asterix and Obelix surrender to the Romans? In English we might say that something so unlikely will happen “when pigs fly” or “when hell freezes over.” In France you can say quand les poules auront des dents – when chickens have teeth!
Apparently the person who invented this expression was unaware that on rare occasions chickens have in fact been observed to grow teeth!
11. “Les doigts dans la nez”
In English, when something is very easy, you might say that you can do it with your eyes closed or with your hands tied behind your back. In French, you can say “Je pourrais le faire les doigts dans le nez!” – I can do it with my fingers in my nose!
12. “Sentir le sapin”
This means “to feel/sense the fir tree”. Fir wood was traditionally used to make coffins, so if you can feel the fir, then you're close to death, or have one foot in the grave. Like its English counterparts, you can use this expression in a figurative sense, not just when someone or something is literally dying. E.g. a project or a campaign might be feeling the fir.
You could also exclaim “ça sent le sapin!”, roughly meaning “it's all over!” or “it's the end of the road!”
13. “Manger comme quatre”
Manger comme quatre means to “eat like four” – to eat enough food for four people, which obviously isn't a healthy habit. It's a colloquial way to say that someone eats a lot or eats too much. In English it's more common to say “to eat for two”, so presumably English speakers only get half as fat as French speakers.
14. “Prendre quelqu’un la main dans le sac”
Literally, this means “to catch someone with their hand in the bag”. You can guess the implication: if you catch a thief while their hand is still in the bag, you've caught them red-handed.
15. “Un coup de foudre”
Foudre means “lightning”, and a coup de foudre is a lightning bolt. “Avoir un coup de foudre pour quelqu'un” means to “have a lightning bolt for someone”. It means that you've fallen in love with someone at first sight, or fallen head-over-heels in love with them.
A similar expression apparently also exists in Italian, as seen in The Godfather when Al Pacino's character becomes smitten with a Sicilian girl and his friends talk about him getting “hit by the thunderbolt.”
16. “Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre”
Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre means “to have (both) butter and butter money” – “butter money” being the money that you would earn by selling your better.
To quote the Rolling Stones, you can't always get what you want. But some people can't accept this, and seem to think that they can both have their cake and eat it too – or, as a French person would describe it, keep their butter and get their butter money. Mick Jagger disapproves.
17. “Une bouchée de pain”
Une bouchée de pain is “a mouthful of bread”. Bread is cheap (don't tell Marie Antoinnette), so if you buy something for a very low price, you can say je l’ai acheté pour une bouchée de pain – “I bought it for a mouthful of bread.”
18. “L’habit ne fait pas le moine”
This means “the clothing doesn't make the monk”. Just because someone is dressed in a monk's robes, that doesn't mean that they're actually a monk. So don't judge things based on their appearance alone – don't judge a book by its cover.
Etymological trivia: I translated “l'habit” as “clothing”, but a better tradition is simply “habit”, which is the traditional English word for a monk's robes. The more commonly-understood meaning of “habit”, as in a repeated or customary behaviour, actually comes from the name of the robes – you learn new habits in the same way as a monk puts on his robes.
19. “Il me court sur le haricot”
If someone te court sur le haricot, that means they're “running on your bean”. What on earth does that mean? Why, they're getting on your nerves, of course.
20. “Avoir la gueule de bois”
Here's the word guele again that we saw in example 2. A guele de bois is a “wooden mouth”. Think about it – when does your mouth feel like wood? Perhaps when it's very dry? Maybe after a night of drinking? That's right – to have a gueule de bois is to have a hangover.
21. “Mettre son grain de sel”
Mettre son grain de sal means “to put one's grain of salt”. It's similar to the American expression “to give one's two cents” – it means to give an opinion, with the implication that the person's opinion doesn't really matter, and is perhaps unsolicited or unwanted.
22. “Être dans le cirage”
Cirage means “polish” (as in the thing you put on your shoes, not the country to the east of Germany). If you're dans le cirage – “in the polish”, you're groggy, drowsy, half-asleep, or maybe even out for the count, i.e. unconscious.
23. “Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs”
Idioms are an advanced topic in any language. They shouldn't be the first thing you learn; you need to get a solid grasp on the language's fundamentals first. To study French idioms before you know basic French grammar and vocabulary would be to mettre la charrue avant les bœuefs – to put the plough before the cows! (In English it's more common to talk about putting the cart before the horse.)
24. “Ne pas casser trois pattes à un canard”
Imagine a friend told you that they'd broken three legs on a duck. How on Earth did they manage that? Ducks only have two legs! If you found a third leg to break, you've done something extraordinary and newsworthy.
So if something happens that isn't particularly interesting or special, French people might say that il ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard – “it doesn't break three legs on a duck”. It's nothing special, nothing to write home about.
25. “Jeter l'éponge”
“To throw in the towel” is an English idiom that means to give up or surrender. It comes from boxing: when a fighter is getting badly beat, and his handlers want to forfeit the match on his behalf, they literally throw a towel into the ring to tell the referee to stop the match.
French has a similar expression, except you don't throw in a towel, you jeter l'éponge – “throw in the sponge”.
Actually, I just looked that last one up, and supposedly the expression “throw in the sponge” exists in English too. I know that this doesn't break three legs on a duck, but as a Brit I've never heard this variation. I'll start using it when chickens have teeth – that's just my grain of salt.
What are Your Favourite French Idioms?
What do you think of all these French idioms? Are they so easy that you could learn them with your fingers in your nose, or have I left you feeling like you're in the polish? If it's the latter, I'm sorry: I didn't mean run on your bean or blow your fuse.