TRAVELERS visiting France can experience French as an appealing but also dumbfounding linguistic puzzle. It could be that the counterintuitive spelling does not reflect the phonetics; or that the constant use of metaphors and obscure expressions to describe the most common and unremarkable of actions is confusing.
This selection includes old-fashioned expressions that have gone through time and are still used in everyday life, but also recent innovations that are so widespread in everyday conversations that they have become an essential part of spoken French. In the end, one is forced to admit clichés are sometimes true: French sounds like France. It has a passion for food, love, sex, and swear words.
1. L’appétit vient en mangeant
“Appetite comes with eating”
It doesn’t matter whether you had a big lunch, surely you have enough room left for coffee and brioche at my place, or an after-work platter of cheeses with your colleagues?
2. A tes amours !
“Bless your loves!”
This is something you reply to someone who has just sneezed twice. If the sneezer is polite, they’ll answer: Et que les tiennes durent toujours ! (“And may yours last forever!”)
3. C’est dans les vieux pots qu’on fait la meilleure soupe
“The best soup is made in old dishes”
The best way to achieve what you want often lies in traditional, old methods or utensils — or people: some men use this expression to say they have a preference for mature women.
4. Mariage pluvieux, mariage heureux !
“Rainy wedding, happy marriage”
Now you know what to say when you’re invited to a French wedding and both bride and groom look wretched, sharing the same umbrella.
5. Joli coeur
A joli coeur is someone who likes to flirt by lavishly dispensing compliments and sweet little attentions. It is not a pejorative expression, but it is a little bit sarcastic.
6. Faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties !
“Don’t push grannie in the nettles!”
This is what you say when someone is pushing it too far, is too demanding, abuses your trust or your patience.
7. Y’a pas à tortiller du cul pour chier droit
“No need to go all ass-twisting in order to shit straight”
A coarse way to say that one should say what they think without hesitation nor hypocrisy, without “hanging around the cooking pot” (tourner autour du pot).
8. Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire
“Once the wine has been drawn (out of the barrel), it must be drunk.”
Once your actions have borne their fruits, or had unfortunate consequences, you must finish the job, or take responsibility for your actions.
9. Ca casse pas trois pattes à un canard
“It doesn’t break three legs off a duck”
Ducks only have two legs. Well, exactly. Something that doesn’t manage to break three legs off the same duck, is unremarkable and so not particularly praiseworthy.
10. Ca mange pas de pain
“It doesn’t eat any bread”
Said of an action that doesn’t cost anything (in terms of money, time, or effort), that can’t harm, and thus is worth trying.
11. Sur le pouce
“On the thumb”
The proper way of having lunch in France is (a) seated in a chair, (b) in front of a table with actual eating utensils, (c) during a 1-hour (at least) break. Any act of eating that fails to involve any or all of these three parameters does not qualify as eating, but as eating “on the thumb”, namely in a precarious balance and improper position. Eating “on the thumb” is a habit that is generally frowned upon, by your doctor, your relatives, and your colleagues.
12. A l’oeil
“At a glance”
Said of anything that you manage to do for free, generally by working your way around the rules and under the trusting (and mistaken) eyes of those in charge (hence the expression). Doing things à l’oeil in France is generally met with a mixture of disapproval and admiration.
13. Faire une grasse matinée
“Making a fat morning”
Just means sleeping in, enjoying a lazy (and fattening) morning in bed. Grasse (“fat”) is probably, in this case, a corruption of Latin crassus, which means “thick” (and so extended, long).
14. Chaud lapin
Said of a man who’s quite obsessed with sex and always has several potential sex partners in mind at the same time. This expression may be used as a warning to someone who is considering a chaud lapin as a potential flirt, or worse, as a long-term lover.
15. Il pleut comme vache qui pisse
“It’s raining like a pissing cow”
So long for cats and dogs. If the word “piss” grosses you out, you can also say il pleut des cordes (“it’s raining ropes”). But you will score less French-attitude points in the locals’ book.
16. Poser un lapin
“Placing a rabbit”
This is the regular way in French to say “not showing up for a date or an appointment”. Its origin is unclear. All we know for sure is that in the 19th century, it referred to the refusal to pay a prostitute for the favors she had just dispensed.
17. Quand les poules auront des dents
“When hens grow teeth”
Namely, something that will never happen, just like flying pigs. Note that the French version recently developed an interesting, nerdy twist. Some people might tell you that you got it all wrong, and should have said quand les poules avaient des dents (“when hens grew teeth”). If you don’t see what I mean, watch Jurassic Park.
18. Les carottes sont cuites
“The carrots are (over)done.”
Said with a sense of impending doom, in a situation where there is no hope left to change things. An alternative way to say it is c’est la fin des haricots (“it’s the end of the beans”). Carrots or beans, pick your ingredient and march toward your fate.
19. Tomber dans les pommes
“Falling in the apples”
This is the common way to refer to a loss of consciousness in French. It can totally be used to describe the incident to a physician, when the medical reason behind that incident is still unknown.
20. Avoir du pain sur la planche
“Having bread on one’s board”
To have a lot of work left to do, to have one’s hands full.
21. Vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche
“Living on love and cool water”
Said of a relationship where two lovers just sleep, eat, have sex, repeat. Sometimes said more metaphorically, of two lovers so obsessed with each other that they stubbornly evade everyday chores and responsibilities.
22. Entre la poire et le fromage
“Between the pear and the cheese”
About something said as a confidence, in a trusting (and often unexpected and uninvited) manner. In the Middle-Ages, the French order of courses during a meal was fruit first (very often pears, or apples), and then cheese. Later, the nobles reversed that order, and so did everyone else, but the expression remained. It refers to the end of a meal, when people have their bellies full of food and wine and are more prone to tell secrets and un-trouble their minds.
23. Un coup de foudre
“Love at first sight” in French.
24. Avoir la dalle
“Having the slab”
Being very hungry. Centuries ago in French, dalle didn’t mean “slab”, but “gutter”, or someone’s “gullet”. French people know how weird that expression sounds today, and it is not uncommon to hear the reply: “…and I’ve got some cement! Let’s make a terrace!”
25. Casser la croûte
“Breaking the crust”
The most sensible thing to do when you have the slab. As opposed to eating on the thumb (#11), breaking the crust means that you sit down and share this impromptu meal in good company — by breaking the crust of your bread by hand, because you don’t have the time or utensils to cut it properly.
26. Et 100 balles et un Mars ?
“And 100 bucks and a Milky Way?”
In continental Europe, we have Mars instead of Milky Way. This modern but extremely widespread expression is used as a reply to someone who has just made a preposterous request or expressed unreasonable expectations.
27. Minute papillon !
“One minute, butterfly!”
Said to stop someone who is overexcited, or is acting so enthusiastically that they may make reckless decisions.
28. Merde !
“Break a leg!”
That’s right. The iconic French merde doesn’t just mean “shit”, it is also a strong, heartfelt good luck wish you give to someone. It dates back to the 19th century when rich people came to the theater and opera house in horse-drawn carriages. Horses produce a lot of merde, and you could generally judge the popularity and success of a show by the amount of merde in front of its venue.
29. Mettre du beurre dans les épinards
“Putting butter in the spinach”
Making one’s life a bit easier, treating oneself to some fun.
30. Parler français comme une vache espagnole
“Speaking French like a Spanish cow”
I conclude with that expression because it hides an interesting story. Vache here is in fact a corruption of Occitan gavach, which is a derogatory term for the seasonal, uneducated workers that used to come down from the Spanish Pyrenees to find work in the southwest of France. For this is a fact that few people know when they first visit France: French is just France’s official language. Several regional languages, sometimes only remotely related to French, are still spoken today.