Taking the proverbial (à la française)

Once you start getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of a foreign language, it’s hard to beat the rush of sneaky satisfaction that comes with reeling off a witty expression at an opportune moment.

It can feel like you’ve gained access to a cache of top-secret passwords or mastered a terrifyingly elaborate initiation ritual.

If only my secondary school French teacher could see me now, you think. I’ve come a long way since Encore Tricolore.

Wanting to indulge my inner languages nerd, I recently bought Au bonheur des expressions françaises and Excuse My French.

Both books are a treasure trove of information for Francophiles. They’re entertaining and helpful, and have lovely illustrations. If you’re interested in finding out more, they’re available for sale on Amazon here and here.

After being inspired by my purchases, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite French sayings below….

Animal-related idioms

1. Parler le français comme une vache espagnole = A bit harsh, but if someone is mangling the French language and you feel the need to tell them, you can always say that they ‘speak French like a Spanish cow’.

spanish cow

2. Se faire poser un lapin = If you’ve been stood up and want to discuss your ordeal in perfect idiomatic French, this one’s for you. You haven’t been kept waiting by anyone but you’ve ‘had a rabbit put on you’.


3. Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter = Instead of saying that they’ve ‘got other fish to fry’, French people will tell you that they’ve ‘got other cats to whip’. Time to call the RSPCA, methinks.


4. S’ennuyer comme un rat mort = Alternatively, if you’ve ticked everything off on your to-do list and are left with no cats to whip or fish to fry, you could be ‘bored stiff’. Or, as the French say, you’re ‘as bored as a dead rat’.


5. Revenir à ses moutons = This can be a useful way of getting a discussion back on track. If you find yourself (or the people you’re with) digressing, make like the French and tell your conversation partners to  ‘get back to [their] sheep’. Or, as English speakers say, ‘get back to the matter at hand’.



Food-related idioms

6. Avoir la pêche/la patate/la frite = If someone has boundless energy or is in a good mood, you can tell them that they ‘have the peach’, or that they ‘have the potato’ or ‘the chip’. Take your pick.


7. Aller se faire cuire un œuf = We say ‘get lost’. For the Americans, it’s ‘go take a hike’. Les français, on the other hand, will tell someone to ‘go and cook themselves an egg’.


8. S’occuper de ses oignons = In short, this means ‘look after your own onions’. Despite its charmingly pastoral connotations, this is a fairly blunt way of telling someone to mind their own business.


9. Ne pas avoir un radis = I’m a huge fan of this one. Its French meaning is literally ‘to not have a radish’, and in English, it can be translated as ‘to be as poor as a church mouse’. Use this when you want to conjure up a vision of romanticised poverty (think idealistic poets starving in draughty garrets and starry-eyed young couples being ‘poor but happy’.)


10. En faire tout un fromage = And last but not least, as this blog is about France, we’ve obviously got to have a cheese-related proverb. The literal meaning of this is ‘to make a whole cheese out of something’. In English, we’d translate this as ‘to make a song and dance about something’.


What do you all think of these idioms?

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got any favourite French words or expressions!  

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