French is often called the language of love. With its musical lilt, rich Latin roots, and soft-sounding words, it's easy to pen a love letter to French. Even if the pronunciation can be a little picky. It's also full of fun and strange French expressions that can put a tongue in cheek new spin on things. For the Americans, every dog has its day and we all know the English don't like to beat around the bush. Idioms and expressions decorate every language. French is no exception. We celebrate some common (and not so common) expressions along with their English translations so you can stack up on some cool French phrases...
The Best French Expressions and Idioms to Pass as a Native
Whether travelling across the continent or just looking to French it up a little, these cheeky and charming French sayings are perfect little phrases to pepper in at your next social soirée.
We will start with something short, simple, and sweet to get you going on your French idiom journey. This popular phrase is forever used in colloquial dialogue. A versatile saying, Ça marche translates to 'it walks' which means it works or it functions. It can also be used in conversation or as a reply to mean 'Okay' or that you have 'got it'. While some of the other idioms and expressions are lesser used and lesser-known, this is one you will hear time and time again.
"Ce n'est pas la mer à boire"
It's not like you have to drink the ocean
We can all get a tad dramatic at times but don't be surprised if a French person calls you out with this poetic sentiment. "Ce n'est pas la mer à boire" literally translates to 'it's not like you have to drink the ocean' meaning that the task you are facing isn't that difficult. A similar English expression could be 'it's not the end of the world'. The next time someone is complaining about something, this is a pretty way to close it down.
"Faire la grasse matinée"
To have a fat morning
Snoozing between cotton sheets and sipping a coffee still tangled in the covers, lingering over a long brunch, and generally enjoying the wealth of time in the morning. This French expression oozes happiness and means to have a lazy morning or a lie-in. The idea of time being big and sumptuous is gorgeous. We will take all la grasse matinees we can get.
"Dormir à la belle étoile"
To sleep in the pretty star
If sleeping beneath canvas and sky isn't your thing, the French know how to spin a camping trip into sheer romance. Ever the language of love, this pretty little idiomatic expression which basically means to sleep outside turns it into something else. The English version could be 'to sleep under the stars', which is arguably just as striking.
"Mettre les pieds dans le plat."
To put one's feet in the dish
While the English may blunder through with a foot in the mouth, the French version of indelicate conversation translates to 'putting your feet in the dish'. For those who tend to run headfirst into a subject that everyone else is dancing around, they could be accused of 'mettre les pieds dans le plat'. With the French love of food, we all know what a faux pas that would be.
"L’appétit vient en mangeant."
Appetite comes with eating
Of course, the French have many colloquial expressions when it comes to food. The saying L’appétit vient en mangeant refers to an attitude that grows with action. While it can literally mean, you weren't hungry, but the food was so good you licked the plate clean, it can also be applied to increased energy and desire when doing something. For example, you were tired but now you are out dancing you won't get home until dawn.
"La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin."
Go and cook yourself an egg
While it may sound like a kind gesture to make yourself some breakfast, this popular French phrase is actually a sign that you are irritating someone. If someone offers you to go and cook yourself an egg, they are letting you know it's time to leave them alone in a highly polite yet crystal clear manner.
"Mauvais quart d’heure"
A bad quarter of an hour
You may have heard of people getting their fifteen minutes of fame, but a fall from grace can mean a bad quarter of an hour. This expression relates to those who may find themselves in a short struggle or having a bad period in life. It's a glorious expression as it helps to remind us that while things may be tough, everything passes and everything changes and there will be many more good hours to come.
"Faire tout un fromage"
To make a whole cheese out of something
While the English language may have you making mountains out of molehills, the French will have you whipping up a whole wheel of camembert. To tell someone they are faire tout un fromage (making a whole cheese out of something), you are hinting that they could be overreacting a little or making a fuss where there is none.
"Avoir un coeur d’artichaut"
To have the heart of an artichoke
Do you save all your adoration for that special someone or do you have the heart of an artichoke? The French have many ways to express their love, but this sentiment comes in on the salty side. This humorous accusation can be applied to someone who hands their heart to anyone they meet. Just like the artichoke peels off each petal, a person with an artichoke heart will fall in love quickly and often.
"Avoir des atomes crochus avec quelqu'un"
To have hooked atoms with someone
Romance runs deep in the language of love and this doting dreamy saying refers to when you meet someone and click. To hook atoms with someone means to get on the same wavelength or to share a lot of things in common. It's a beautiful turn of phrase that conjures all kinds of images of entanglement.
"Vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche"
To live on love and fresh water
For those who have fallen head over heels, you may know the feeling of surviving on love and fresh water. This sentimental saying is perfect for those who have met someone and thrown everything else to the wind. When you are first caught in the wave of love, you may forget everything and everyone around you. That is until you remember that you can't actually survive on love alone.
"Il fait un froid de canard"
It's duck cold
Weather expressions in French always seem to involve animals and when someone isn't complaining of il pleut des chats et des chiens (raining cats and dogs), perhaps they will shudder at the idea of it being 'Il fait un froid de canard'. This teeth-chattering saying refers to it not just being cold, but being duck cold. It's believed that the duck reference is linked to hunting season starting in November.
"La moutarde monte au nez (à quelqu'un)"
The mustard goes up the nose (ouch)
Imagine the fiery feeling of hot mustard shooting up your nose and making you huff and puff. This is literally what the above phrase means but in a figurative sense it refers to someone or something making you really mad. As your nose starts to fume and your eyes stream, these are all sentiments that could be shared with feeling really annoyed at something. In English slang we may say 'I'm fuming' but in French, it would be "la moutarde monte au nez".
"Poser un lapin à quelqu'un"
To put down the rabbit
When you put down the rabbit it means that you have stood someone up. It's often used when talking about dating and romance but can also be used casually when talking about friends or social events or even in a professional context. It's a French saying that is very tongue in cheek. This odd saying is believed to link back to ancient times when the rabbit was considered to be a symbol of abundance.
"Tomber dans les pommes"
To fall in the apples
When you tomber dans les pommes (fall in the apples), it means that you have fainted or lost consciousness. While falling into apples may seem like a strange result from passing out, it's believed that this saying could be linked to the French word for swooning (pâmer) and that pommes simply replaced pâmer over time. It could also come from a phrase used in a letter between George Sand and Madame Dupin in the 19th century. Madame Dupin refers to herself as being 'in cooked apples' meaning that she is tired. Wherever the phrase came from, it seems to have stuck.
"Ca va mettre du beurre dans les épinards"
It's going to put butter in the spinach
Whether it's an unexpected windfall or nailing down a new deal, this saying relates to a situation that can help you out financially. As butter has a long history of being an indulgent and luxury item, a situation that adds some fat to your bank account means you can add a little more luxury to your plate.
“Couper les cheveux en quatre”
Cutting the hair into four pieces
We can all be pedantic at times and in the English expression you may be accused of splitting hairs. While the saying is similar when translated into French, this version refers to exactly how many hairs are being split. Basically, when you are quibbling or getting bogged down by the details, you may be told by a French person that you are 'couper les cheveux en quatre" - cutting the hair into four pieces. Take this as a hint to relax a little.
"Peigner la girafe"
To comb a giraffe
In the true spirit of idioms, we end on one of the more bizarre French sayings. For those who can be warned of wasting their time on something, you may say they are 'peigner la girafe' because combing a giraffe is well and truly a useless task. In English, you could say someone is 'chasing fireflies' or 'flogging a dead horse' but in French, they are combing a giraffe.
Idioms and expressions can be the colour palette that makes language so interesting. Often these expressions have a different meaning and aren't to be taken literally. They are fun, tongue in cheek plays on words that help you to seamlessly settle into a native language. Brush up on these idioms and you will have everyone extending their hand to say enchanté.