100 Strange Idioms That’ll Help You Sound More French

Have you ever read or heard a sentence you couldn’t understand despite knowing all the words?

A sentence whose meaning was as mysterious as the meaning of the French words on Forever 21 t-shirts?

You just discovered the wonderful world of French idioms.

These are expressions equivalent to “alright”, “to go the extra mile” or “to get laid”.

They’re everywhere.

And you’ll never truly sound French if you don’t know their meaning.

Table of Contents

Choose the kind of French expressions you’re interested in

This article will help you discover 100 common French idioms.

That’s a lot and I know you don’t have time to discover all of them immediately.

So bookmark this article and select the category you’re the most interested in.

French idioms about love and relationships

French idioms to express how you feel

French idioms about food and drinks

French idioms about the weather

French idioms to talk about money

French idioms to talk about actions

Other French idioms

French idioms about love and relationships

French idioms about love and relationships

Avoir un coup de foudre

Literally: to have a struck of lightning

Meaning: In the world of French idioms, love can be rather painful and love at first sight is called “un coup de foudre”. You can also say that you have a “coup de foudre” for an object,

Meaning it unexpectedly and suddenly seduced you.

English counterpart: to fall in love at first sight, to fall madly in love

J’ai eu un véritable coup de foudre quand je l’ai vu.

When I saw him, it was love at first sight.

Le coup de foudre a été immédiat quand elle a entendu cette chanson.

She immediately fell in love with this song when she heard it.

Se faire larguer

Literally: to get dumped

Meaning: This idiom has the same meaning as “to get dumped” in English.

English counterpart: to get dumped

Tu as l’air triste, qu’est-ce qui se passe ? Je me suis fait larguer par mon copain.

You look sad, what’s going? My boyfriend dumped me.

“Se faire larguer” (to get dumped) is the passive form. But you can also say “larguer quelqu’un” (to dump someone).

Se prendre un râteau

Literally: to hit a rake

Meaning: You know that feeling when the person you’re interested in rejects you?

That’s what the French call “se prendre un râteau”.

English counterpart: to get knocked back

Nathan est triste, parce qu’il s’est pris un râteau.

Nathan is sad because he got knocked back.

Poser un lapin à quelqu’un

Literally: to put a rabbit to someone

Meaning: Ever had a date who didn’t show up? In French, you say the person “vous a posé un lapin”.

English counterpart; to stand somebody up

T’avais pas un rencard ce soir ? Si, elle m’a posé un lapin.

Didn’t you have a date tonight?

I did, she stood me up.

Il est triste, parce qu’il lui a posé un lapin.

He is sad, because he stood him up.

S’envoyer en l’air

Literally: to throw oneself in the air

Meaning: This is an informal way to say “to have sex”.

English counterpart: to get laid

Les français aiment s’envoyer en l’air, c’est bien connu.

The French like to get laid, that’s a well-known (fact).

French idioms to express how you feel

French idioms about feelings

Avoir le cafard

Literally: to have the cockroach

Meaning: When you have “le cafard”, it means you’re depressed, you are feeling down.

English counterpart: to feel blue, to feel down, to feel depressed

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? T’as l’air triste.

Je sais pas, j’ai le cafard.

What’s going on? You look sad.

I don’t know, I feel depressed.

Depuis qu’il a appris la nouvelle, il a le cafard.

He has been feeling down ever since he heard the news.

Avoir la pêche/banane/patate

Literally: to have the peach/banana/potato/shape

Meaning: This is an idiom you can use to say someone is happy and full of energy.

Think about a smiley face in the shape of a banana.

English counterpart: to feel great, to feel happy, to be in high spirits

Il a la banane aujourd’hui, ça fait plaisir.

He feels (looks likes he feels) great today, it makes me happy.

Rien de mieux que des vacances au soleil pour avoir la pêche.

Nothing better than vacations under the sun to feel great.

Avoir/crever la dalle

Literally: to have/die the slab

Meaning: Nowadays “la dalle” mostly means “the slab”, but it used to designate a part of the throat. It’s an idiom you can use to say you are starving.

English counterpart: to be starving, to feel hungry

J’ai tellement la dalle que je pourrais manger n’importe quoi.

I’m so hungry I could eat anything.

Je crève la dalle depuis une semaine, j’en ai marre.

I have been starving for one week, I can’t take it anymore.

Note: “Crever la dalle” is even more casual than “avoir la dalle”.

Prendre la tête

Literally: to take the head

Meaning: when something or someone “prend la tête”, it means it’s irritating, it gives you a headache and you can’t wait to be done with it.

It’s often used in negative sentences to say you shouldn’t bother too much with something.

English counterpart: to bother someone, to give yourself a headache. to drive crazy

Ce rapport me prend la tête, je suis impatient de le terminer.

This report is giving me a headache, I can’t wait to be done with it.

Son voisin bruyant lui prend la tête

His noisy neighbor bothers him.

Te prends pas la tête, c’est qu’un jeu

Don’t let it drive you crazy, it’s just a game.

En avoir marre

Literally: to have enough of it

Meaning: you use “en avoir marre” when you’ve had enough of something or someone.For example, you’ll often hear French people complain about trains being late and say “j’en ai marre”.

English counterpart: to be fed up with something or someone.

J’en ai marre des transports en commun.

I am fed up with public transportation.

Putain, j’en ai marre de ce mec

Damn it, I’m tired of this guy.

Avoir du pain sur la planche

French idioms bread

Literally: to have bread on the board

Meaning: When you have “bread on the board”, it means you have a lot to do.

English counterpart: to have a lot on your plate

J’ai du pain sur la planche cette semaine, et si on se voyait la semaine prochaine plutôt ?

I have a lot on my plate this week. What about meeting next week instead?

Être canon

Literally: to be canon

Meaning: This is an informal way of saying that someone is beautiful (or hot) or that an object is cool.

English counterpart: to be hot, to fit the standard of beauty

Wow, cette fille est trop canon.

Wow, this girl is so hot

Être à l’ouest

Literally: to be in the West.

Meaning: This idiom actually has nothing to do with geography, you can use it to say someone is off,

English counterpart: to be spaced out, to not be with it.

Excuse-moi, j’ai oublié qu’on se voyait aujourd’hui, je suis à l’ouest.

Sorry, I forgot we were supposed to meet today, I’m not with it at all.

Il était tellement à l’ouest qu’il s’est trompé de chambre en rentrant à hôtel.

He was so spaced out he went to the wrong hotel room when he came back.

Être rouge comme une tomate/ écrevisse/pivoine

Literally: to be red like a tomato/crawfish/peony

Meaning: Tomatoes are red, so is the face of someone who is embarrassed or ashamed of something.

English counterpart: to be as red as a beetroot

Il est devenu rouge comme une tomate quand il a appris la nouvelle.

He looked/became very embarrassed when he heard the news.

Monsieur, pouvez-vous décrire le visage de la personne qui vous a attaqué ? Oui, il était rouge comme une écrevisse. Un peu comme un Martien en fait.

Sir, could you describe the face of the person who attacked you? Yes he was as red as a beetroot, a bit like a Martian actually.

Être crevé

Literally: to be flat, to be dead

Meaning: you are “crevé” when you don’t have energy anymore, you’re exhausted and just want to rest.

English counterpart: to be exhausted, to be extremely tired

Il a fait un marathon aujourd’hui, c’est pour ça qu’il est crevé.

He ran a marathon today, that’s why he’s exhausted.

T’as l’air crevé, qu’est-ce qui se passe ?

You look exhausted, what’s going on?

Après une journée comme ça, t’es forcément crevé.

After such a day, you’re necessarily tired.

Être mal en point

Literally: to be bad in point

Meaning: This French expression means someone or something is in a bad state. It can be a building that is destroyed, someone who is sick…

English counterpart: to be in a bad state

Il est mal en point depuis que sa copine l’a largué

He has been in bad shape ever since his girlfriend dumped him.

Il était trop mal en point pour venir

He was too sick/ was feeling too bad to come

En avoir ras le bol

en avoir ras le bol French expression

Literally: to have a bowl full of it

Meaning: When your bowl is full of something, it means you have too much of it (unless it’s a delicious cake of course).

This idiom means you are “sick of it”, you are fed up with something.

This has the same meaning as “en avoir marre”.

English counterpart: to be fed up with

J’ai encore perdu mes clefs, j’en ai ras le bol!

I lost my keys again, I am sick of it!

Les français en ont ras le bol de leur président.

The French are fed up with their president.

Avoir la flemme

Literally: to have laziness

Meaning: “Avoir la flemme” simply means “to be lazy”.

English counterpart: to be lazy, can’t be bothered

Je n’y suis pas allé, j’avais la flemme.

I didn’t go there, I was lazy.

Je devrais réviser pour mes examens, mais j’ai la flemme

I should be studying for my exams, but I can’t be bothered.

Avoir une peur bleue de

Literally: to have a blue fear

Meaning: Une “peur bleue” is a fear closer to terror than to actual fear.

That’s the kind fear someone afraid of flying or afraid of spiders would experience.

English counterpart: to be terrified, to be scared to death of something

Il a une peur bleue des araignées.

He is extremely afraid of spiders

Ne pas être dans son assiette

ne pas être dans son assiette French idiom

Literally: Not to be in one’s plate

Meaning: When you aren’t in your plate, it means you’re not feeling very well, be it emotionally or physically.

English counterpart: to be/feel under the weather

Le facteur n’avait pas l’air dans son asiette hier.

The mailman didn’t seem to feel well yesterday.

Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette aujourd’hui, je ne sais pas pourquoi.

I don’t feel well today, I don’t know why.

Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez

Literally: to have the mustard going up your nose

Meaning: Want to know where this idiom comes from?

Take a big spoon of strong mustard and swallow it,

English counterpart: to lose your temper

Quand j’ai entendu ça, la moutarde m’est montée au nez.

When I heard that, I got angry.

La vue de son ex suffit pour que la moutarde lui monte au nez.

Seeing his ex is enough to make him lose his temper.

Être au taquet

Literally: to be at a piece of wood

Meaning: The word “taquet” used to refer to a piece of wood put between a door and a wall to block it.

The expression “être au taquet” means that something is blocking you, but in a positive way, meaning that you could not be in a better situation.

English counterpart: to be going flat out, to be going full throttle, to be full on

Tu es prêt pour la course demain ?

Oui, je suis au taquet.

Are you ready for the race tomorrow? Yes, I am very motivated.

Je suis inquiet, j’ai l’impression qu’il n’est pas vraiment au taquet.

I’m worried, I feel like he isn’t really going flat out.

Avoir la gueule de bois

Literally: to have the wooden face

Meaning: Ever drank a little too much alcohol? Then you know what a wooden face feels like since “gueule de bois” is the translation of hangover.

The expression comes from the fact that your mouth is dry like wood when you have a hangover.

English counterpart: to have a hangover

J’ai une gueule de bois horrible ce matin.

I have a horrible hangover this morning.

Après avoir fait la fête hier soir, je me suis réveillé avec une gueule de bois terrible.

After partying yesterday night, I woke up with a terrible hangover.

Avoir un chat dans la gorge

avoir un chat dans la gorge French idiom

Literally: to have a cat in the throat

Meaning: You can use this idiom to express the feeling that you have something in your throat and therefore need to cough to clear it.

English counterpart: To have a frog in one’s throat.

Je n’arrive pas à parler aujourd’hui, j’ai un chat dans la gorge.

I can’t talk today, I have a frog in the throat.

Être bien dans sa peau

Literally: to be good in one’s kin

Meaning: If you feel good in your skin, it means you are comfortable with your body and who you are. You are not afraid of other people’s opinion.

English counterpart: to be comfortable in your own skin, to feel good about yourself

Elle est bien dans sa peau.

She is at ease with herself.

Beaucoup de jeunes ne se sentent pas bien dans leur peau.

Many teenagers don’t feel comfortable with themselves.

Avoir un QI d’huître

Literally: to have the IQ of an oyster

Meaning: This is an informal way of saying someone is stupid.

English counterpart: to be stupid

C’est la deuxième fois que je perds mes clefs cette semaine, j’ai vraiment un QI d’huître.

It’s the second time I lose my keys this week, I am really stupid.

Il faut un QI d’huître pour ne pas réussir cette épreuve.

One needs to have the IQ of an oyster not to pass this exam.

Réussir un examen = to pass an exam.

Passer un examen = to take an exam.

Avoir un poil dans la main

Literally: to have a hair in the hand

Meaning: This idiom means a person is extremely lazy. So lazy in fact that he/she let a hair grow in her/his hand.

English counterpart :to be lazy

Il a un poil dans la main, c’est pour ça qu’il ne réussit pas.

He is lazy, that’s why he doesn’t succeed.

Les fonctionnaires ont tous un poil dans la main, c’est bien connu !

Public servants are all lazy, that’s common knowledge!

French idioms about food and drinks

French idioms about food

Manger sur le pouce

Literally: to eat on the thumb.

Meaning: If you spend time in France, you will notice that the French spend a lot of time eating and enjoying food. When you “eat on the thumb”, it means you actually eat quickly and don’t sit down to enjoy and share the moment with your family and friends.

English counterpart: to eat on the go, on the run.

Si tu veux on peut manger sur le pouce au lieu d’aller au restaurant.

If you want, we can eat on the go instead of going to the restaurant.

T’as bien mangé à midi ? Oh non pas vraiment, j’ai mangé sur le pouce.

Did you eat well for lunch? Oh no, not really I ate on the go.

Boire comme un trou

Literally: to drink like a hole.

Meaning: You can use this idiom to gently criticize someone who drinks lots of alcohol and never knows when to stop.

English counterpart: to drink like a fish, to drink heavily

C’est normal que tu ne te rappelles de rien, t’as bu comme un trou hier.

It’s normal for you not to remember anything, you drank like a fish yesterday.

Pour certains jeunes, boire comme un trou est un jeu.

For some young people, drinking heavily is a game.

Boire un coup

boire un coup idiom

Literally: to drink a shock

Meaning: boire un coup is the expression you use when you want to ask a friend to have a drink with you.

You’ll also regularly hear “boire un verre” (literally: to drink a glass).

Both expressions are equivalent.

English counterpart: to have a drink

Allez viens, on va boire un coup pour fêter ça

Let’s go have a drink to celebrate

On fait quoi ce soir ? On peut aller boire un coup si tu veux.

What do we do tonight? We can have a drink if you want.

Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre

Literally: to have the eyes bigger than the belly

Meaning: You “have eyes bigger than your belly” when you want to eat more than you can.

English counterpart: to bite off more than you can chew.

Quand tu rentres dans une patisserie, c’est dur ne pas avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre.

When you walk in a bakery, it’s hard not to bite more than you can chew.

French idioms about the weather

French idioms about the weather

Un froid de canard

Literally: a cold of duck

Meaning: In winter, when it’s very cold, ducks go away from lakes and are therefore exposed to hunters. So “un froid de canard” is an extremely cold and hostile weather.

English counterpart: to be bitterly cold, to be icy cold

Il fait un froid de canard ici en hiver.

It’s very cold here in winter.

Pleuvoir des cordes

pleuvoir des cordes

Literally: to be raining ropes

Meaning: in English, you skip ropes, in French, they fall from the sky.

You can use this idiom to say it’s raining a lot.

You may also hear “tomber des cordes” (to fall ropes).

English counterpart: to be raining cats and dogs

Oh non, s’il continue à pleuvoir des cordes, on va devoir annuler le pique nique.

Oh no, if it keeps raining so much, we will have to cancel the picnic.

D’après la météo, il va pleuvoir des cordes pendant toute la semaine.

According to the weather forecast, it will be raining cats and dogs for the whole week.

French idioms to talk about money

French idioms about money

Jeter l’argent par les fenêtres

Literally: to throw the money through the windows

Meaning:: In the 16th century, it was common to give money to beggars by throwing it through the window.

While the French don’t do that anymore, the expression remained and means wasting money.

English counterpart: to carelessly spend money, to waste money, to splurge

La société de consommation nous incite à jeter l’argent par les fenêtres.

Consumer society encourages us to splurge.

Arrête de jeter l’argent par les fenêtres, tu en auras peut-être besoin plus tard

Stop spending so much money for nothing, you may need it later

Une bouchée de pain

Literally: for a mouthful of bread.

Meaning: A mouthful of bread doesn’t cost much in France. So when you compare something to a mouthful of bread, it means it doesn’t cost much.

English counterpart: for next to nothing.

Il t’a coûté cher ce DVD ? Oh non, je l’ai acheté pour une bouchée de pain.

Did this DVD cost you a lot? Oh no, I bought it for next to nothing.

Blanchir de l’argent

Literally: to whiten money.

Meaning: Americans whiten their teeth, the French whiten money.

Usually, we consider that whitening something makes it cleaner, and that’s exactly why criminals like to whiten dirty money, to make it look like it has a legal origin.

English counterpart: to launder money

Les dealers de drogue essayent de blanchir de l’argent.

Drug dealers try to launder money.

Ne pas y aller de main morte

Literally: to not go there with a dead hand

Meaning: You use this idiom to talk about someone who does something fully and doesn’t hold back. You could also use “ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuillère” (lit: to not go with the back of the spoon).

English counterpart: to make no bones about it, to be heavy-handed, to not pull one’s punches

Si vous voulez trouver un travail, vous ne devez pas y aller de main morte/ avec le dos de la cuillère.

If you want to find a job, you need to be dynamic.

Coûter les yeux de la tête/un bras

Literally: to cost the eyes of the head, to cost an arm.

Meaning: Our eyes, arms are very dear to us. Losing them would be quite a shame. So when you read that something costs an arm, it means it costs a fortune.

English counterpart: to cost an arm and a leg / to cost a fortune

J’aimerais bien acheter cet ordinateur, mais il coûte les yeux de la tête.

I would like to buy this computer, but it costs a fortune.

S’en mettre plein les poches

Literally: to put a lot in one’s pockets

Meaning: In France, being rich is perceived rather negatively because people often consider that one can’t get rich without exploiting others. This idiom is often used to criticize someone who earns lots of money.

English counterpart: to line your pockets

Les patrons s’en mettent plein les poches, alors que les employés gagnent peu.

Bosses earn lots of money, while employees earn very little.

Rouler sur l’or

Literally: to roll on gold.

Meaning: You ‘roll on gold” when you have so much money you don’t really know what to do with it.

English counterpart: to be rolling in money, to be rich.

Elle roule sur l’or depuis qu’elle a gagné au loto.

She has been rich ever since she won the lottery.

Se serrer la ceinture

Literally: to tighten one’s belt

Meaning: You use this idiom to say you have to restrict yourself and do without something you are used to.

English counterpart: to tighten one’s belt

A cause de la crise économique, les gens doivent se serrer la ceinture.

People can’t spend lots of money because of the economic crisis.

French idioms to talk about actions

French idioms action

Casser les pieds à quelqu’un

Literally: to break someone’s feet

Meaning: This violent idiom means that someone is annoying someone else.

English counterpart: to annoy, bother someone

Ton frère me casse les pieds avec ses questions.

Your brother annoys me with his questions.

Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un

Literally: to break sugar on someone’s back.

Meaning: In France, we often say that “Les absents ont toujours tort”, which means that people who aren’t there are always wrong.

This French idiom means you are gossiping about someone who isn’t there.

English counterpart: to talk about someone behind his/her back

Raphael, arrête de casser du sucre sur le dos de ta soeur, ça ne se fait pas.

Raphael, stop talking about your sister behind her back, it’s rude.

Le pauvre, tout le monde casse du sucre sur son dos.

Poor him, everyone is talking behind his back.

Tourner au vinaigre

Literally: to turn to vinegar

Meaning: When a situation “turns to vinegar”, it means it’s getting out of control.

English counterpart: to get out of control, to get nasty.

Ça va tourner au vinaigre si personne n’intervient.

It will end badly if nobody intervenes.

En France, les manifestations tournent souvent au vinaigre.

In France, demonstrations often get out of control.

Faire la grasse matinée

Literally: to do the fat morning

Meaning: This lovely French idiom means “to sleep in”.

English counterpart: to sleep in.

Après avoir bu comme un trou, j’ai décidé de faire la grasse matinée.

After drinking heavily, I decided to sleep in.

Le dimanche est le jour parfait pour faire la grasse matinée après une dure semaine de travail.

Sunday is the perfect day to sleep in after a hard week of work.

Tomber dans le panneau

Literally: to fall into the sign.

Meaning: Back in the 15th century, a “panneau” was a net used to catch wild animals.

Nowadays “un panneau” means “a sign”, but this idiom means you fell into a trap without realizing it. And when you do, it’s too late.

English counterpart to fall into the trap.

Chaque année de nombreux touristes tombent dans le panneau et achètent de fausses bagues en or.

Every year, lots of tourists fall into the trap and buy fake diamond rings.

Il faut être vigilant pour éviter de tomber dans le panneau.

One must be careful in order to avoid falling into the trap.

(Jeter) un coup d’oeil

Literally: to throw a stroke of (the) eye.

Meaning: You use this idiom to say you are going to take a quick look at something. You can also use “un coup d’oeil” alone to say “a glance”.

English counterpart: to cast a glance, to take a look.

Je vais jeter un coup d’oeil pour voir ce qui ne va pas.

I will go take a look to see what’s not working (lit: going).

Tu peux y jeter un coup d’oeil plus tard si tu manques de temps.

You can take a look later if you lack time.

Raconter des salades

raconter des salades French idiomatic expression

Literally: to tell salads.

Meaning: In French, “raconter des salades” means you’re inventing a story hoping people will believe you.

English counterpart: to talk bullshit, to spin a yarn

Plus tu en sais, moins ce sera facile de te raconter des salades.

The more you know, the harder it will be to lie to you

Tu ne devrais pas lui faire confiance, il raconte souvent des salades

You shouldn’t trust him, he often talks bullshit.

Aller droit au but

Literally: to go straight to the goal.

Meaning: When you go straight to the goal, it means you are not wasting any time and go straight to the point.

English counterpart: to go straight to the point.

J’aime les gens qui vont droit au but et ne tournent pas autour du pot.

I like people who go straight to the point and don’t beat around the bush.

Faire le pont

Literally: to make the bridge.

Meaning: If you don’t work on a Thursday, you may as well not work on Friday and just enjoy a 4 day weekend. That’s the meaning of “faire le pont”.

English counterpart: to take a long weekend.

Tu fais le pont ce weekend ?

Oui, je pars à Bordeaux pour le weekend.

Do you take a long weekend this week?

Yes, I go to Bordeaux this weekend.

Note: “Le weekend” is one of many English words used in French.

Faire gaffe

Literally: to make mistake.

Meaning: You use this idiom to warn someone about something and ask the person to be careful. You can also use “faire attention”.

English counterpart: to be careful, to watch out.

Fais attention/ fais gaffe à ta valise, ou tu risques de la perdre !

Watch your suitcase or you risk losing it!

Faire la sourde oreille

Literally: to do the deaf ear

Meaning: This means you pretend not to hear when someone is talking to you.

English counterpart: to turn a deaf ear.

Je l’ai appelé, mais il a fait la sourde oreille.

I called him, but he turned a deaf ear/ pretended he didn’t hear me.

Tourner la page

Literally: to turn the page

Meaning: “to turn the page”, means you forget about the past and move on.

English counterpart: to make a fresh start, to put something behind you

Ça fait 5 ans qu’il est parti, il est temps de tourner la page.

He has been gone for five years, it’s time to move on.

Faire l’andouille

Literally: to make the sausage

Meaning: “Une andouille” is a smoked sausage made of pork and that’s also how you call a person who does something ridiculous in French.

You may also hear “faire des conneries”.

English counterpart: to act silly

Il n’arrête pas de faire l’andouille

He doesn’t stop acting the fool.

Ton frère fait toujours l’andouille, c’est fatigant à force.

Your brother is always acting the fool, it’s exhausting after a while.

S’occuper de ses oignons

Literally: to take care of one’s onions.

Meaning: When you ask someone to take care of his onions, you actually politely (or not depending on the tone) ask them to stop bothering you and to mind their own business.

English counterpart: to mind one’s own business.

Ce n’est pas ton problème, occupe-toi de tes oignons !

It’s not your problem, mind your own business!

Et si tu t’occupais de tes oignons au lieu de lui faire des remarques ?

What if you started minding your own business instead of bothering her?

En faire tout un fromage

en faire tout un fromage French idiom

Literally: to make a whole cheese out of it

Meaning: You make a whole cheese out of something when you make a fuss about something that actually isn’t that important.

English counterpart: to make a mountain out of a molehill/to make a fuss about something

J’ai perdu mes lunettes de soleil, j’espère qu’elle ne va pas en faire tout un fromage.

I lost my sunglasses, I hope she won’t make a fuss about it.

Mettre du piment dans sa vie

Literally: to put spice in one’s life

Meaning: Are you bored? Then you should put spice in your life to try to make it more interesting and fun.

English counterpart: to spice up one’s life

J’ai décidé de mettre du piment dans ma vie, je pars en Afrique demain.

I decided to spice up my life, I go to Africa tomorrow.

Pleurer comme une madeleine

Literally: to cry like a Madeleine (Madeleine is a biblical character as well as the name of a cake).

Meaning: In the Bible, Marie Madeleine was a former prostitute who begged Jesus to forgive her.

In modern French, “pleurer comme une Madeleine” means “to cry a lot”, so much that it could be considered too much.

English counterpart: to cry like a baby, to cry your eyes out

Ça fait plus de trois heures qu’elle pleure comme une madeleine, je me demande quand elle va arrêter.

She has been crying a lot for more than three hours, I wonder when she is going to stop.

Ramener sa fraise

Literally: to bring back one’s strawberry

Meaning: When you “bring back your strawberry”, it means you join a conversation without being invited to do so. You can also use this expression to ask someone to come.

English counterpart: to put one’s two cents in

Ramène ta fraise, on est en retard !

Get your ass over here, we’re late!

Il ramène toujours sa fraise, c”est énervant

He always joins us without being invited to do so, it’s irritating

Changer de crèmerie

Literally: to change for another dairy shop

Meaning: When you “change for another dairy shop”, it means you decide to abandon the shop or provider you usually use and go to another one instead.

English counterpart: to take one’s custom elsewhere

J’en avais marre de ce fromager, donc j’ai changé de crémerie.

I was tired of this cheese maker, so I go to another one now.

Note: Young people tend to use “aller voir ailleurs” (to go see elsewhere) more.

En avoir rien à cirer/foutre/faire

Literally: to have nothing to polish/do about it.

Meaning: This is a colloquial (and rather rude) way of saying someone doesn’t care about something or someone. Nowadays “rien à foutre” and “rien à faire” are the most commonly used forms.

English counterpart: to not give a shit, to not give a damn

J’en ai rien à foutre de ce que tu penses

I don’t give a shit about what you think.

Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

Literally: to have other cats to whip.

Meaning: You can say you have other cats to whip to explain that you have something better to do than what you are asked or expected to do.

English counterpart: to have better things to do, to have other fish to fry

Le président a d’autres chats à fouetter et n’a pas le temps de s’occuper de vos problèmes.

The president has other things to do than to take care of your problems.

Faire la tête

Literally: to make/do the head

Meaning: You “make the head” when you are not happy with something and decide to sulk as a result.

Note: don’t confuse this expression with “faire la fête” (to party).

English counterpart: to sulk

Il fait la tête car il n’a pas eu ce qu’il voulait.

He is sulking because he didn’t get what he wanted

Mettre son grain de sel

mettre son grain de sel

Literally: to put one’s grain of salt

Meaning: This expression comes from the latin “cum grano salis“. It’s used to complain about people who join a conversation or do something without being invited to do so.

English counterpart; to put two cents in.

Il faut toujours qu’il mette son grain de sel dans nos conversation, ça m’énerve !

He always has to put his two cents in our conversations, it irritates me!

J’apprécie tes parents, mais j’en ai marre qu’ils mettent toujours leur grain de sel.

I like your parents, but I am tired of the fact they always put their two cents.

En prendre de la graine

Literally: to take the seed from it

Meaning: Seeds are what allow plants to grow, so when you take the seed from someone, you steal their recipe for success and follow their example.

English counterpart: to take the page from someone’s book, to follow an example

Ton frère a de bons résultats à l’école, j’espère que tu vas en prendre de la graine

Your brother has good results at school, I hope you will follow his example

Prendre ses cliques et ses claques

Literally: to take your legs and your shoes

Note: “clique” isn’t used anymore, and “claque” now means “slap”.

Meaning: Nowadays “prendre une claque” means “to get slapped”. But this idiom actually means that someone leaves suddenly and unexpectedly.

English counterpart: to pack up and go, to leave suddenly

Prends tes cliques et tes claques, je ne veux plus te voir

Pack up and go, I don’t want to see you anymore

Dès qu’ils ont vu les policiers, les vendeurs à la sauvette ont pris leurs cliques et leurs claques.

As soon as they saw the policemen, the street peddlers ran away.

Prendre quelque chose au pied de la lettre

Literally: to take something to the letter’s foot

Meaning: This idiom means you follow instructions without questioning them, and without doing anything more or less than what you are asked to do.

English counterpart: to the letter

Elle a pris tes instructions au pied de la lettre et est partie en vacances.

She took your instructions Literally and went on vacation.

Partir en fumée

Literally: to go up in smoke

Meaning: When something goes up in smoke, it disappears, and that’s exactly what this idiom means.

English counterpart: to go up in smoke, to disappear

Mes rêves sont partis en fumée quand tu es partie.

My dreams went up in smoke when you left.

Prendre ses jambes à son cou

Literally: to take one’s legs to one’s neck

Meaning: No, this idiom has nothing to do with stretching. It actually means someone is running for his life and leaving as quickly as possible.

English counterpart: to run for one’s life

Quand il a vu le chien, il a pris ses jambes à son cou.

When he saw the dog, he started running for his life.

Souvent, les criminels prennent leurs jambes à leur cou bien avant l’arrivée de la police.

Often, criminals run away long before the police arrive.

Prendre son courage à deux mains

Literally: to take one’s courage with two hands

Meaning: Some people “prennent leurs jambes à leur cou” (run away), while other prefer to be brave and take their courage with two hands.

This idiom means someone has decided to face a risk or overcome a fear.

English counterpart: to summon the courage to do something, to gather one’s courage

Elle a pris son courage a deux mains et a demandé une augmentation.

She gathered her courage and asked for a raise.

Allez, prends ton courage à deux mains et annonce-lui la nouvelle.

Come on, gather your courage, and tell him the news.

Prendre quelqu’un la main dans le sac

Literally: to catch someone with the hand in the bag

Meaning: Imagine you’re in the subway and see a pickpocket taking a phone out of a bag.

You can say you took him the hand in the bag. That is, you caught him red-handed.

English counterpart: to be caught red-handed

On l’a pris la main dans le sac alors qu’il était sur le point de partir.

We caught him red-handed as he was about to leave

Malheureusement, peu de pickpockets sont pris la main dans le sac.

Unfortunately, few pickpockets are caught red-handed.

N’y voir que du feu

Literally: to only see fire in it.

Meaning: This idiom means that you don’t notice something obvious.

English counterpart: to be clueless, to fail to notice something

J’ai remplacé son vin par du jus de raisin et il n’y a vu que du feu.

I replaced his wine by grape juice and he didn’t notice anything.

Être en train de

Literally: to be in action of

Meaning: This isn’t technically an idiom, but I decided to include it because it confuses many French learners.

“Train” means “a train”, but it also means “action” in old French. So “en train de” is actually the equivalent of “be + ing”.

You simply add the infinitive of the verb after “en train de” to construct it.

Je suis en train de manger

I am eating

Qu’est-ce que vous êtes en train de faire ?

What are you doing?

Chercher la petite bête

Literally: to look for the little beast

Meaning: We all know someone who always finds something to complain about and pays attention to the most insignificant details.

In French, we say that this person “cherche la petite bête”

English counterpart: to nitpick

Il cherche toujours la petite bête, c’est énervant.

He is always nitpicking, it’s irritating.

Tu ne seras jamais heureux si tu cherches toujours la petite bête.

You will never be happy if you always nitpick.

Tomber dans les pommes

tomber dans les pommes French idiom

Literally: to fall in the apples

Meaning: This expression means someone fainted.

It first appeared in 1889 but its origin remains uncertain. it most likely comes from a letter George Sand, a famous French writer sent to Madame Dupin, and in which she used “être dans les pommes cuites” to express her exhaustion.

English counterpart: To faint

Marc est tombé dans les pommes

Marc fainted

En été de nombreux passagers tombent dans les pommes dans le métro parisien à cause de la chaleur.

In summer, lots of passengers faint in the Parisian subway, because of the heat.

Être sur son 31

Literally: to be on one’s 31

Meaning: Like often, the origin of this expression is unknown. However, it may come from the word “trentain” which used to refer to a luxurious tissue.

To be on your 31 therefore means that you are wearing your most beautiful clothes, that you are elegant.“Se mettre sur son 31′′ is also used sometimes.

English counterpart: to be all dressed up

Wahou, tu es sur ton 31 aujourd’hui!

Wow, you are all dressed up today!

Elle se met toujours sur son 31 avant de sortir.

She always dresses up before going out.

Ne pas être sorti de l’auberge

Literally: to not be out of the inn

Meaning: When you are not out of the inn, it means you are facing lots of problems and won’t solve them anytime soon.

English counterpart: to be well and truly in it, to not be out of the woods

Bonne chance ! T’es pas sorti de l’auberge !

Good luck! You’re well and truly in it!

Il n’est pas encore sorti de l’auberge, il lui reste beaucoup à faire.

He is not out of the woods yet, he still has a lot to do.

Donner sa langue au chat

Literally: to give one’s tongue to the cat

Meaning: This expression is used to say you don’t know about something and are unable to give an answer.

But you wouldn’t use this idiom to say “I don’t know”, the meaning is closer to “I have taken the time to think about it, and frankly I don’t know the answer to your question, so I give up”.

Alors c’est quoi la réponse? Aucune idée, je donne ma langue au chat.

So what’s the answer? I have no idea, I give my tongue to the cat.

Les candidats ont tous donné leur langue au chat.

The candidates all gave their tongue to the cat/ admitted they didn’t know the answer and gave up.

Tu ne devineras jamais qui j’ai vu dans la rue aujourd’hui

You will never guess who I saw in the street today! Le facteur ? The mailman?

Non, quelqu’un que tu connais !

No, someone you know!

Alors là, je donne ma langue au chat.

Well, I have no idea.

Tenir au courant

Literally: to hold to the current

Meaning: you generally use this expression to say you keep yourself or someone else up to date.

For example, if you plan to meet someone during the week, but don’t know when exactly, you may say “je te tiens au courant”.

English counterpart: to keep up to date, to keep posted

On se voit où demain ? Je sais pas, je te tiens au courant.

Where do we meet tomorrow? I don’t know. I’ll keep you posted.

J’aime bien me tenir au courant de l’actualité.

I like to keep up on news

Other French idioms

ah la vache French idiom

Un coup de main

Literally: a stroke of hand

Meaning: Un “coup de main” is the action of helping someone. most of the time just to be nice.

English counterpart: a helping hand

Un coup de main ne serait pas de refus.

I wouldn’t say no to a helping hand.

Est-ce que vous pouvez me donner un coup de main s’il vous plaît ?

Could you help me, please?

Sur un coup de tête

Literally: on a stroke of head

Meaning: when you do something “sur un coup de tête”, you do it impulsively, without planning it.

English counterpart: on an impulse, on a whim

Je suis parti pour l’Australie sur un coup de tête.

I left for Australia on an impulse.

Vous ne pouvez pas déménager sur un coup de tête, c’est une décision importante.

You can’t move to a new place on a whim, it’s an important decision.

Les doigts dans le nez

Literally: fingers in the nose

Meaning:. No wonder the French are considered dirty people with expressions like that!.

When you can do something “les doigts dans le nez”, it means it’s easy to do.

English counterpart: hands down, with one hand tied behind your back

C’est tellement facile que Je pourrais le faire les doigts dans le nez.

It’s so easy I could do it with my eyes closed.

Ils ont gagné les doigts dans le nez.

They won hands down.

Quelque chose qui cloche

Literally: something wrong

Meaning: “Clocher” is a French verb meaning “to be wrong” as well as the French word for “bell”.

You can use this French idiom when something is wrong

English counterpart: To not add up, not be right

Il n’est toujours pas arrivé, il y a quelque chose qui cloche.

He still hasn’t arrived, there is something wrong.

Je ne lui fais pas confiance, il y a quelque chose qui cloche.

I don’t trust him, something isn’t right.

Ah la vache

Literally: oh the cow

Meaning: “ah la vache” can be used in many situations. The same way you would use “oh my god” in English.

To make it easier to remember, think about the English expression “holy cow”

English counterpart: Oh my god, holy cow

Ah la vache, il l’a vraiment fait !

Oh my god, he really did it!

Ça marche

Literally: it works/walks

Meaning: this is an informal expression the French use all the time to say they agree. Note: “ça marche” can also be used literally to say something is working.

English counterpart: Alright, ok,

On se voit à 10 heures devant la sortie 2 du métro Etoile demain ? ça marche !

Let’s meet at 10 AM in front of Exit 2 of the subway station Etoile tomorrow? Alright!

Ça marche pour mardi

Tuesday is fine for me/us

Tout craché

Literally: all spat

Meaning: this idiom means that two objects or person look alike.

English counterpart: spitting image

Votre fils, c’est vous tout craché !

Your son is the spitting image of you !

C’est la fin des haricots

Literally: it’s the end of the beans

Meaning; Before, beans were the last food remaining when everything else was gone. So when it was the “end of the beans”, there was nothing left  at all.

English counterpart: there is nothing left/it’s the end

Oh non, Facebook ne fonctionne plus, c’est la fin des haricots.

Oh no, Facebook doesn’t work anymore. It’s the end of the world.

Ne pas être de la tarte

Literally: to not be pie

Meaning: When something “isn’t pie”, it means it’s difficult. This French expression is the opposite of “to be a piece of cake”.

English counterpart: It’s not easy, it’s hard work

Ce travail, c’est vraiment pas de la tarte.

This work is difficult.

Ce n’est pas de la tarte, mais ça vaut le coup.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Faire un tabac

Literally: to make a tobacco.

Meaning: When something “makes a tobacco”, it means it’s extremely successful.

English counterpart: to be a hit.

Ce livre a fait un tabac.

This book was a hit.

Sentir le sapin

Literally: to smell of fir tree

Meaning: Ah pine trees, Christmas, happiness…and hum coffins. Pine tree wood was traditionally used to build them, so when something “smells of fir tree”, it means it already has one foot in the grave.

English counterpart: to have one foot in the grave.

A peine commencé, ce projet sent déjà le sapin.

Barely started, this project already has one foot in the grave.

What’s your favorite French idiom? Answer in the comments below!

38 thoughts on “100 Strange Idioms That’ll Help You Sound More French”

  1. Connaissez un équivalent français pour « if you don’t use it, you loose it! ». Expression pour encourager les gens à faire de la gymnastique.

    Reply
  2. I am translating La Folle de Chaillot into English. Most of it is accessible to me. But there are some phrases that I suspect are idioms, and I don’t know them. For example, “Celui qui voulait aller au petit coin était celui dont la sourire était le plus large…” I suspect it means something like “The one who needs to go to the bathroom is the one whose smile is the largest.” Is that anywhere close? Merci.

    Reply
    • Yes indeed “le petit coin” is an indirect way of saying “going to the toilet” (rather than bathroom). It is still commonly used in french.

      Ex: -“Où est ton frère?”
      Where is your brother?
      -“Parti au petit coin”
      He went to the toilet

      Reply
  3. Big thanks for this fantastic site, it is so helpful! Just a note about the ‘Mettre son grain de sel’. I have always heard this as “putting in your 2 cents worth”. The ‘worth’ at the end is added, it doesn’t sound quite right otherwise. Merci encore, Ann :}

    Reply
  4. “filer le bébé” (lit. to pass the baby) It means to pass something on to someone else.
    “La situation était très difficile, alors j’ai filé le bébé à mon manager” – “The situation was too difficult, so I passed it on to my manager.

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  5. Hi Benjamin
    Is there a French expression for ‘long-winded’? I ask this because (je suis désolée pour dit ça !) French is quite long-winded compared to English. I wonder if that’s why native Feench speakers talk so quickly.
    Merci,
    Jacqueline

    Reply
  6. Oh these are useful. Thank you for taking your time to write these up. I am enjoying reading through them as it’s quite handy when I need to find the French equivalents to English phrasal verbs and/or idiomatic expressions. My kids speak fluent French and I sometimes struggle to understand them when they use idioms in their daily conversations at home.

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  7. mon vieux/ma vieille = (literally) my old one [my old friend/my buddy, or maybe something like the US …brother/sister, my man/my girl]
    Mon vieux! = Sometimes used like: Mon Dieu! [My God!]

    Reply
  8. Voici d’autres expressions…
    C’est du n’importe quoi, ça! = That’s rubbish!
    N’importe quoi! Regarde ce qu’ils ont fait les enfants! = What on earth! [USA: Lord have mercy!] Look what the children have done!

    Reply
  9. I’m trying to find the idiom about “the dogs bark and the caravan continues.” All I remember is “la caravane marche.” Help!

    Reply
  10. I heard a French expression/idiom that in English translation was “I’m beautiful and I don’t even try”.
    It was not quite “Je suis belle comme je suis”…; it was longer and had something about effortlessness. It’s driven me nuts that I lost it. Do you know of any such expression french for beauty and confidence combined?

    Reply
  11. All this category is very interesting 🙂
    Do you know where I could find the reverse (English idiomatic ones to French)?

    Reply
  12. It popped up again . . .”ce type ne t’arrive pas à la cheville, crois-moi” apparently! They said “this guy does not play in the same league as you, believe me”. So nothing to do with socks at all – no wonder it didn’t ring any bells! Sorry!

    Reply
  13. I think I came across one something like “elle fait le mouche” and it was the French equivalent of “she hit the nail on the head”. Am I right?

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  14. I did not know about the origins of “avoir le cafard”, interesting fact. Thank you for sharing Benjamin, great post as always!

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  15. I like “revenons à nos moutons”. Literally “let’s get back to our sheep” but means “let’s get back on topic” when you’re conversation has strayed.

    Reply
  16. Salut 🙂
    I just wanted to let you know that “avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre” is the same in English (“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach”). “To bite off more than you can chew” actually refers to taking things on in life, and then not being able to handle it or the consequences (for example, agreeing to plan a wedding, but then not being prepared for the amount of work it entails)
    🙂

    Reply

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