15 French Sayings Locals Use All The Time

One of my favorite things about learning a new language is discovering its sayings.  You know, those oft-repeated phrases that usually contain some sort of lesson, like “A penny saved is a penny earned”?

There are countless French sayings. Some have been around for centuries. Using these expressions can make you seem more like a native speaker, but do it sparingly. Uttering sayings and proverbs every time you speak will seem odd at best, and dull or annoying at worst.

The French sayings you’ll come to know best will depend on the French speakers you’re interacting with or watching/reading.  Still, there are some pretty common French sayings and expressions you’ll hear just about everywhere in France today.

Here’s everything you need to know about fifteen of these common French proverbs.:

1. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.

Literal translation: “It’s not as if you have to drink the sea.”

What it means: It’s not that difficult/It’s not that hard/It’s not so bad/It’s not the end of the world.

This is one of my favorite French sayings because its vivid imagery gives it a bigger punch than its equivalents in my native English.

How to use it: You can keep this as a sentence after another statement or combine it in one sentence.  If you combine it, note that the preposition you use is de.  Here are some examples:

I.

You: J’ai trop de boulot cet après-midi.  (I have too much work to do this afternoon.)

Your overworked friend : Oh là là, ce n’est pas la mer à boire ! (Come on, it’s not the end of the world!)

II.

Je vais devoir préparer le diner seul ce soir mais ce n’est pas la mer à boire. (I’m going to have to make dinner by myself tonight, but it’s not so bad.)

III.

Ce n’est pas la mer à boire de faire une heure de sport. (It’s not that hard to do one hour of exercise.)

Remember that when you use a verb that begins with a vowel, de becomes d’:

Ce n’est pas la mer à boire d’aller faire les courses. (It’s not so hard to go food shopping.)

Fun fact: This saying dates to the 17th century, and its vivid imagery is thanks to none other than Jean de la Fontaine, who came up with it for his fable Les deux chiens et l’âne mort.  In the fable, it’s in the affirmative, rather than the negative, sense, but it was quickly adopted and used in its current form by other French writers and thinkers, like Diderot.

2. À bon chat, bon rat.

cat

Literal translation: “To a good cat, a good rat.”

What it means: Tit for tat./Equally matched./To meet your match.

The idea of this one comes from the fact that, as cats became better at catching rats, the rats had to find more and more ways to outwit them.

How to use it:

Comme son frère lui a délibérément cassé sa manette de jeux vidéo, elle a caché la sienne. Comme ça, il ne pourra pas jouer non plus…et elle pourra l’utiliser pour jouer en cachette.  A bon chat, bon rat. 

(Because her brother had purposely broken her video game controller, she hid his.  This way, he won’t be able to play, either…and she can use his controller to play in secret.  Tit for tat.)

Fun fact: This expression has been used since the 17th century.

3. Mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné.

Literal translation: “Better to be alone than accompanied badly.”

What it means: It’s better to be alone than to be with someone who isn’t good company.  This can apply to friendships, romantic relationships –or even maybe just about any situation in life, if you think about it.

How to use it:

Marc vient d’être plaqué par sa copine. Tant mieux ! Elle le critiquait constamment et je pense qu’elle l’a même trompé ! Mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné. (Marc’s girlfriend just left him.  Good! she criticized him constantly and I think she even cheated on him!  It’s better to be alone than in bad company.)

Remember to agree seul(e) and accompagné(e) with the gender of the person you’re talking about. For example:

Henri est un pote de longue date, mais Marie a décidé de prendre ses distances car il parle d’elle derrière son dos.  Mieux vaut être seule que mal accompagnée.  (Henri has been her friend for a long time, but Marie is going to start distancing herself from him because he talks behind her back. It’s better to be alone than in bad company.)

Fun fact: Do an online search for this term in French, and you’ll find that it’s (understandably) inspired a flood of articles and essays on relationship advice, friendship, psychology, as well as one of the quintessential passions of the French: philosophy.

4. Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler.

Literal translation: “You should turn your tongue around in your mouth seven times before you speak.”

What it means: Think before you speak.

How to use it:

Quentin : Oh zut !  Je n’aurais pas dû demander à cette dame si elle était enceinte ! (“Darn it! I shouldn’t have asked that lady if she was pregnant!”)

Didier : Oui, il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler.  (“Yeah.  You should think before you speak.”)

Fun fact: This proverb comes from the Bible (Book of Proverbs) and has a pretty universal message. But it works particularly well if you’re trying to fit into French culture, which greatly admires wit and despises small talk.

This is actually one of the biggest challenges for many of us Americans; although our positive words and vibes may be 100% sincere, because they often lack cynicism, the French think we’re either stupid, or lying.

I might look at a freshly baked croissant and sincerely think, “Amazing! That is going to be super-delicious!” But if I’m with a French person who doesn’t know me well, I’ll remember: Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler. Then, I’ll simply say, “Ça a l’air pas mal.” (That doesn’t look too bad.)

5. Ce n’est pas à un vieux singe qu’on apprend à faire des grimaces.

monkey

Literal translation: “You don’t teach an old monkey how to make funny faces.”

What it means:  I wasn’t born yesterday.

False cognate alert!: Although this French proverb is similar to the English expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they do not mean the same thing!  The English expression means that as people get older, they get set in their ways, and it’s hard to change their habits and teach them new things.  The French expression, however, is about someone who doesn’t need to learn anything new.

How to use it: 

Bad grandson: Mais Mamie, je n’aurais jamais piqué le billet de 20 euros que tu as laissé sur le bureau. Pour qui me prends-tu ? (But Grandma, I would never have even thought about stealing the 20 euro bill that you left on the desk.  Who do you take me for?)

Jaded grandma: Ce n’est pas une nouvelle casquette sur ta tête, toi qui n’a jamais un sou ? Ce n’est pas à un vieux singe qu’on apprend à faire des grimaces. (Isn’t that a new baseball cap you’re wearing, you who never has any money? I wasn’t born yesterday!)

Fun fact: Most people in mainland France had probably never seen a monkey until revolutions in transportation, like railroads and faster ships, made it possible for more of the population to visit zoos and far-off places, including French colonies where monkeys were a part of the local landscape. When you think about that, it’s not surprising that this saying was born in the 19th century.

6. Les chiens ne font pas des chats.

Literal translation: “Dogs don’t make cats.”

What it means:  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree./ Like mother/father, like daughter/son.

Basically, this saying is used when you see how someone takes after one or both of their parents. For the example below, I’ll use something people often say about my three-year-old son:

How to use it: 

Other person: Il aime bien parler !  (He really likes to talk!)

Me (or anyone who knows me): Les chiens ne font pas des chats ! (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!)

Fun fact : According to a 2014 survey conducted by newspaper Le Point, this is French people’s favorite French proverb.

7. L’habit ne fait pas le moine.

monk catching a train

Literal translation: The outfit doesn’t make the monk.

What it means: Don’t judge a person by their appearance./Appearances can be deceiving./Don’t judge a book by its cover.

False cognate alert!: Although they’re similar, don’t confuse this with the English expression “The clothes make the man,” which means the opposite thing.  You could, however, use the similarity as a really interesting jumping off point for a conversation with French- and English -speaking friends. Which saying do most people agree with?

How to use it:

La morale de « La Belle et la Bête » est que l’habit ne fait pas le moine. (The moral of “Beauty and the Beast” is that appearances can be deceiving.)

Fun fact: As the monk in the example might suggest, this saying dates to the Middle Ages.

8. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir.

Literal translation: Better to anticipate than to heal.

What it means:  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This proverb can be used literally and figuratively.  Literally, it’s about health: It’s better to take care of yourself now than to neglect your health and fall ill.  Figuratively, it means that it’s better to take precautions against something than to worry about fixing the damage afterwards.

How to use it:

I. Literally:

Je prends des vitamines chaque jour ; mieux vaut prévenir que guérir. (I take vitamins every day; it’s better to take care of myself now than to worry about getting well later.)

II. Figuratively:

Evite de tweeter quand tu es ivre – mieux vaut prévenir que guérir. (Avoid tweeting when you’re drunk – it’s better to keep from causing trouble now than to have to do a lot of damage control later.)

Fun fact: There are equivalents to this proverb in many languages and cultures.  According to L’Internaute, the current French version evolved from a similar expression in medieval Latin.

9. Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.

nest

Literal translation: Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

What it means:  Little strokes fell great oaks./Slow and steady wins the race.

Be patient, because even small actions mean you’re getting closer to accomplishing your goal.

How to use it:

Apprendre le français prend du temps mais tu y arriveras.  Chaque chose que tu apprends augmente tes connaissances et tes capacités. Parler couramment viendra – petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.  (Learning French takes time, but you’ll do it. Each thing that you learn adds to your knowledge and abilities. Fluency will come – little strokes fell great oaks.)

10. Chacun voit midi à sa porte.

Literal translation: Everyone sees noon at their door.

What it means: Everyone sees things their own way./Everyone looks out for their proper interests.

How to use it: 

J’ai essayé d’expliquer pourquoi je préfère les chats aux chiens, mais comme Christelle a des chiots qu’elle doit à tout prix faire adopter, elle ne m’a pas écouté. Chacun voit midi à sa porte. (I tried to explain why I prefer cats over dogs, but since Christelle is desperately trying to give away puppies for adoption, she wouldn’t listen. Everyone looks out for their proper interests.)

Fun fact: While it’s easy to figure out the meaning of many French proverbs, this one is pretty tricky. How can you see noon from your door – or anywhere, for that matter?

It seems like a riddle, but the answer actually lies in history. Centuries ago, people could see what time it was by looking at a sundial placed on a high building in their village or town.  If you stood on your doorstep and looked towards the sundial, you would probably see a slightly different placement of the sun’s shadow than your neighbor or the person who lived a few doors down from you.

11. Qui vivra verra.

Literal translation: Who will live, will see.

What it means: Wait and see./Time will tell./Let’s see how this plays out.

How to use it:

Prendrons-nous contact avec des extraterrestres ?  Qui vivra verra.  (Will we ever make contact with aliens? Time will tell.)

Fun fact: This French proverb comes to us from Jean de La Véprie, a poet who wrote in the mid- to late 1400’s. He’s a pretty quotable guy — type his name into an online search engine for more wise expressions.

12. L’appétit vient en mangeant.

Literal translation: Appetite comes with eating.

What it means: This is another saying that can be used literally or figuratively.  Literally, think about it: Have you ever sat down to dinner and not felt particularly hungry, then started eating and realized that you were hungry after all?  You weren’t alone – it happens enough that someone made a proverb about it!

Figuratively, you could not really care about something or someone, then, as you get involved, you want it/them more and more. This is what happened to me with la galette des rois, French king cake.  I had never had it before moving to Paris, but the minute I took my first bite of that flaky crust filled with frangipane, I knew I would never get enough.

How to use it:

Avant, Sophie s’en fichait des cartes Pokémon, mais l’appétit vient en mangeant.  Depuis qu’elle en a reçu comme cadeau d’anniversaire, elle ne peut pas s’empêcher d’en acheter ou de les échanger avec ses amis !  (Before, Sophie didn’t care about Pokémon cards, but appetite comes with eating.  Ever since she got some for a birthday present, she can’t stop buying them or trading with her friends!)

Fun fact: Rabelais included this proverb in his satirical novel La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel. What better French saying to include in a book about two giants with voracious appetites, whose disgusting deeds might cut off the reader’s for a while?

13. Il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis.

Literal translation: There are only imbeciles who don’t change their opinions.

What it means: Only fools never change their minds.

How to use it:

Charles:  Je ne m’imaginais jamais être d’accord avec quelqu’un comme lui, mais voilà. (I never thought I would agree with someone like him, but there you go.)

Simone:  Tant mieux. Après tout, il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis. (Good. After all, only fools never change their minds.)

Fun fact: As this Word Reference thread shows, there are a number of literary and philosophical equivalents of this wise proverb.  Notably, one user cites a well-known quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

14. La nuit porte conseil.

Young couple sleeping in bed

Literal translation: The night carries advice.

What it means: Our English equivalent is the less poetic “Sleep on it.”  In other words, when you have a problem or a difficult decision to make, go to bed for the night and you’ll see things more clearly in the morning.

How to use it:

Hélène : Qu’est-ce que je vais faire ? (What am I going to do?)

Monique : Tu sais, la nuit porte conseil. Il est tard – va te coucher et peut-être verras-tu plus clair demain. (You know, sleeping on it could help. It’s late – go to bed and maybe you’ll see things more clearly tomorrow.)

Fun fact: Not only is this a pretty proverb; it’s also scientifically proven to work!

15. Impossible n’est pas français.

Literal translation: Impossible isn’t French.

What it means: There’s no such thing as “impossible.”

I first saw this phrase written on a banner at a French elementary school I taught at.  It struck me as universal, but also very patriotic, and has fascinated me ever since.

On the one hand, how inspirational to say that the concept of “impossible” does not exist in your language/culture.  On the other hand, some overly zealous people might take it to mean that the French are able to aim and achieve higher than other people.

Then again, I might not have even considered this second interpretation if it weren’t for the person the quote is attributed to: Napoleon Bonaparte.

How to use it:

Je n’arriverai jamais à gagner le concours de danse !  …Mais non, ça va aller, car après tout, impossible n’est pas français ! (I’ll never be able to win the dance competition! …No, it’s going to be okay, because after all, “impossible” doesn’t exist!)

Fun fact: When you feel like you’ll never get the hang of something in French, let this phrase be your rallying cry!  You might be thinking, “Who cares? I’m not French, so the impossible exists for me.” But remember that while officially French, Napoleon was from Corsica, which meant that he spoke the language just like all of us non-natives do: With an accent!

Despite that, he became the Emperor of France. Learning a language is a formidable task, but nothing compared to conquering (and then reconquering) a significant portion of Europe, right?  Courage! Ce n’est pas la mer à boire!

Which of these French proverbs do you like best?  What other French sayings do you know?

Alysa Salzberg
Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

19 thoughts on “15 French Sayings Locals Use All The Time”

  1. Thank you so much for your help. These sayimgs are more helpful in written and oral french which improve out level of french. Thank you so much and i expect more sayings .

    Reply

Leave a Comment