An idiom is a phrase with such a meaning that it is impossible to be understood from the literal definitions of the words that comprise it. In other words, you couldn’t look up the meaning of each word in a dictionary and understand the sentence’s meaning.

Idioms are frequently deeply ingrained in our culture, dating back many generations and being used without thought. Idioms are frequently amusing when taken out of context or spoken to an English student (who will have no choice but to take the meaning literally). The phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” does not imply that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Idioms are thus extremely difficult to translate and represent effectively in a foreign language.

26 French Idioms In English

French, like all languages, is rich in idioms, which are expressions that mean something other than their literal meaning. If you spend enough time in France, you may overhear people complaining about having mustard up their noses, hair in their hand, a wooden mouth, or a hand in their bag. What does all of this mean?

I’ll share some strange and wonderful examples of common French idioms below. They should come in handy if you want to understand what the French are saying; just don’t take them too literally.

“Il fait un temps de chien!”

Assume you’re walking around Paris with a friend when it begins to pour heavily. Your friend curses and says il fait un temps de chien! (literally, “it’s dog weather!”). This French phrase means “it’s raining cats and dogs!” in the same way that “it’s raining cats and dogs!” in English.

“Ta gueule!”

“Mouth” has two words in French. There’s a bouche, which refers to a human’s mouth, and a gueule, which refers to the mouths of other animals. (Gueule can also be spelled “muzzle” or “maw.”)

So “ferme ta gueule!” means “shut your mouth!” in French, i.e., “shut up!” or “be quiet!” in English, but it has an extra layer of meaning that is difficult to convey in an English translation. Because you use “gueule” instead of “bouche,” you imply that the person you’re speaking with is an animal. So it’s not exactly polite!

“Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez”

So, this colorful expression means having mustard up your nose, which can also be translated as losing your temper or simply being angry.

It’s easy to see where this phrase came from. Consider how you’d feel if you inhaled a large dollop of mustard!

26 French Idioms 1

“Avoir le cafard”

A cafard is a type of cockroach. So, Avoir le cafard literally means “to have the cockroach,” which means to be sad, depressed, blue, or down in the dumps. I suppose the sight of a cockroach isn’t usually something that makes people happy.

“Avoir les chevilles qui enflent”

The phrase Avoir Les chevilles qui enflent means to have swollen ankles. So, if a French person tells you that your ankles are swollen, that doesn’t always mean you should go to the doctor. Your ego could be the source of the problem.

When someone is overly proud or arrogant, they are said to have swollen ankles in French. It has an “in” meaning to the English expressions. The expression goes like this “to be full of yourself” or to be “big-headed”.

“Couper les cheveux en quatre”

In English, we might accuse someone of splitting hairs if they are overly meticulous or pedantic. In France, you would say tu coupes les cheveux en quatre – “you are cutting the hair into four pieces”. It is similar to the English expression, except they specify how many pieces you split the hairs into.

“Péter un plomb”

Breaking or blowing a fuse is literally translated as Péter un plomb. When translated, the meaning is not completely lost – it means “to get very angry” or “to go crazy”.

“Avoir un poil dans la main”

“To have a hair in one’s hand” is what the French idiom translates to when they say Avoir un poil dans la main. It literally means “to be lazy” – so lazy that a hair has grown out of your palm!

“Avoir un chat dans la gorge”

After you have shaved the palms, you might want to pull the cat out of your mouth. So, Avoir un chat dans la gorge means to “have a cat in your throat”. This phrase, like the English expression “to have a frog in your throat,” means that you have a heavy cough or a sore throat.

26 French Idioms 2

“Quand les poules auront des dents”

When will Asterix and Obelix give up their resistance to the Romans? In English, something so unlikely could happen “when pigs fly” or “when the hell freezes over.” When the chickens have teeth, you can say, “quand les poules auront des dents!”

The person who coined this expression must have been unaware that, on rare occasions, chickens have been observed to grow teeth!

“Les doigts dans la nez”

When something is very simple, you might say in English that you can do it with your eyes closed or your hands tied behind your back. “Je pourrais le faire les doigts dans nez!” translates as “I can do it with my fingers in my nose!”

“Sentir le Sapin”

“To feel/sense the fir tree,” as the phrase goes. Because fir wood was traditionally used to make coffins, if you can feel it, you’re either dying or have one foot in the grave. This expression, like its English counterparts, can be used figuratively, not just when someone or something is literally dying. For example, a project or campaign may be experiencing fir.

You could also say, “ça sent le sapin!” which roughly translates as “it’s all over!” or “it’s the end of the road!”

“Manger comme quatre”

Manger comme quatre translates as “eat like four” – eating enough food for four people, which is obviously not a healthy habit. It’s a colloquial term for someone who eats a lot or eats too much. Because it is more common in English to say “to eat for two,” English speakers are presumably half as fat as French speakers.

“Prendre quelqu’un la main dans le sac”

This means literally “to catch someone with their hand in the bag”. The implication is obvious: if you catch a thief while the hand is still in the bag, you have caught them red-handed.

“Un coup de foudre”

The French word Foudre means “lightning,” and Un coup de foudre translates to a bolt of lightning. “Avoir un coup de foudre pour quelqu’un” translates to “have a lightning bolt for someone”. It means you fell in love with someone at first sight or completely fell in love with them.

A similar expression appears to exist in Italian, as seen in The Godfather when Al Pacino’s character falls in love with a Sicilian girl, and his friends refer to him as being “hit by the thunderbolt.”

“Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre”

Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre translates as “to have (both) butter and butter money,” with “butter money” being the money earned from selling your better.

You can not always get what you want, to quote the Rolling Stones. But some people refuse to accept this, believing that they can get their cake and eat it, or, as the French would say, keep their butter and get their butter money. Mick Jagger is not pleased.

“Une bouchée de pain”

Une bouchée de pain is a mouthful of bread. Bread is inexpensive (don’t tell Marie Antoinette), so if you purchase something for a very low price, you can say Je l’ai acheté pour une bouchée de pain – “I purchased it for a mouthful of bread.”

“L’habit ne fait pas le moine”

This means “the clothing doesn’t make the monk”. Just because someone is dressed in monk robes does not imply that they are a monk. So, don’t judge things solely on their appearance, just as you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I translated “l’habit” as “clothing,” but a better tradition is “habit,” which is the traditional English word for a monk’s robes. The more commonly understood definition of “habit,” as in repeated or customary behavior, comes from the name of the robes – you learn new habits in the same way that a monk puts on his robes.

“Il me court sur le haricot”

If someone te court sur le haricot, that means they’re “running on your bean”. What does that even mean? Of course, they’re getting on your nerves.

“Avoir la gueule de bois”

Here’s the word guele from Example 2 again. A “wooden mouth” is a guele de bois. Consider this: how often does your mouth feel like wood? Maybe when it’s really dry? Perhaps after a night of drinking? You read that correctly: a gueule de bois is a hangover.

“Mettre son grain de sel”

Mettre son grain de sal translates as “to put one’s grain of salt”. It’s similar to the American expression “to give one’s two cents” in that it means to express one’s opinion, with the implication that the person’s opinion is unimportant and may be unsolicited or unwanted.

“Être dans le cirage”

Cirage is French for “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 possibly even unconscious.

26 French Idioms 3

“Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs”

Idioms are a complex subject in any language. They should not be the first thing you learn; instead, focus on the fundamentals of the language. To study French idioms before knowing basic French grammar and vocabulary is equivalent to putting la charrue Avant les boeuefs – putting the plough before the cows! (In English, this is more commonly referred to as putting the cart before the horse.)

“Ne pas casser trois pattes à un canard”

Assume a friend informed you that they had broken three legs on a duck. How on earth did they do it? Ducks have only two legs! If you discovered a third leg to break, you’ve accomplished something extraordinary and noteworthy.

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, which means “it doesn’t break three legs on a duck”. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to write home about.

“Jeter l’éponge”

To “throw in the towel” is an English idiom that means to surrender or give up. It originated in boxing, where when a fighter is badly beaten, 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.

In French, you Jeter l’éponge, which means “throw in the sponge,” instead of throwing in the towel.

Actually, I just looked it up, and apparently, the expression “throw in the sponge” also exists in English. I understand that this does not break three legs on a duck, but as a Brit, I’ve never heard of this variation. I’ll start using it once chickens have teeth, but that’s just my opinion.

“Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe”

The phrase Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe literally means to arrive like hair in a soup. It refers to entering a situation at the most inconvenient time. Here’s an illustration:

When I arrived, Julien and Arnaud were fighting like a cheetah on the soup.

Julien and Arnaud were in the midst of a fight when I arrived, making for an awkward situation.

Final Words: What are your favorite French Idioms?

What are your thoughts on all of these French idioms? Are they so simple that you could learn them with your fingers in your nose, or have I left you feeling as if you’ve been dipped in polish? If it’s the latter, please accept my apologies: I didn’t mean to run on your bean or blow your fuse.