Every language has idiomatic expressions. The French have many, and they really love to get creative with theirs. French idioms often involve animals, French food items, lightning bolts, you name it!
It is important to be familiar with at least a few French idiomatic expressions, otherwise you may find yourself feeling very confused when talking with natives. Idioms are sayings that contain meanings that are not-so-obvious just from looking at their individual words.
For example in England, someone might tell you to ‘break a leg’. Now, if you are not English, you may take offense at this. But actually, to ‘break a leg’ in English is another way of wishing someone ‘good luck’!
Now do you understand the importance of knowing some idioms in French? If you can learn a few expressions, they will really help you to sound like a native. It might even make you sound as though you’ve lived in France your whole life!
Plus, they tend to add a bit of humor to conversations.
To get you started, here is a list of 13 popular French idioms, along with their English translations and some examples of when to use them. Let’s dive in:
1 – Ça coûte un bras
Literal translation: It costs an arm
Meaning: It’s very expensive, it costs a fortune
We actually have a similar expression in English: “it costs an arm and a leg”. Of course, losing an arm wouldn’t be very pleasant, we all need our arms! Hence the expression ‘Ça coûte un bras’, meaning it costs a fortune.
Cette belle voiture va te coûter un bras!
This beautiful car is going to cost you an arm and a leg!
2 – Un coup de foudre
Literal translation: a lightning strike
Meaning: love at first sight
The French are known for being romantic. “Un coup de foudre” literally means to be struck by lightning. Have you ever met someone and it was just… love at first sight? Almost like in the movies? Yup, that’s when you would use this French idiom.
Note that you could also use it for things.
Je sais pas… j’ai eu un coup de foudre.
I don’t know… it was love at first sight.
3 – C’est pas tes oignons
Literal translation: it’s not your onions
Meaning: it’s none of your business/ mind your own business
The nearest English equivalent for this expression is ‘it’s none of your beeswax’. This expression is quite informal and you can use it when your friend keeps trying to butt in to something that has absolutely nothing to do with them!
How did onions come into this expression? Now that’s something we’ll never know.
Ce qui se passe entre Roberto et moi, c’est pas tes oignons.
What goes on between Roberto and me, is none of your business.
A great when to memorize French idioms is to learn them naturally, within the context of a story. Check out French Today easy French audio novels and learn really useful vocabulary, naturally.
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4 – Boire comme un trou
Literal translation: to drink like a hole
Meaning: to drink (a lot)
You can use this idiom to describe someone who drinks a little too much alcohol (and doesn’t really know when to stop). The English counterpart would be ‘to drink like a fish’. Here are more expressions about drinking in French.
Son mari boit comme un trou!
Her husband drinks like a fish!
5 – Faire la grasse matinée
Literal translation: to do a fat morning
Meaning: to stay in bed until late.
You might need this idiom when you have a l-ooong lie in after a late night out. This expression sounds a lot more interesting than simply saying ‘dormir tard’ (sleep late). Maybe you should do a ‘grasse matinée’ this weekend!
J’ai fait la grasse matinée ce matin et je me suis réveillé à 11 heures !
I slept in late this morning and I woke up at 11 AM!
6 – Appeler un chat un chat
Literal translation: to call a cat a cat
Meaning: to say it as it is
In English, we have the expression ‘to call a spade a spade’. In French they prefer using cats (so much cooler!). This idiom means to say something as it is, bluntly, directly, and without beating around the bush.
Il faut appeler un chat un chat : il l’a trompée.
You’ve got to call a spade a spade: he cheated on her.
7 – Les carottes sont cuites
Literal translation: the carrots are cooked
Meaning: there’s nothing you can do (about the situation)
‘Les carottes sont cuites’ is used when it is too late for any situation to be changed. In French you can also say ‘C’est fini’ (it’s over) or ‘C’est perdu’ (it’s lost), but the idiom with carrots is a lot more fun in my opinion!
In English, we sometimes say ‘the jig is over’ as an equivalent.
Cette fois, les carottes sont cuites.
This time, the jig is really over.
8 – Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre
Literal translation: to have eyes bigger than stomach
Meaning: to take more than what you can eat
Imagine you are at a buffet, you see a lot of food and think ‘I’m going to eat so much!’. But when it comes to it, you can’t eat much at all because you are too full. That means you had ‘les yeux plus gros que le ventre.’
J’ai pris une trop grosse part. J’ai eu les yeux plus gros que le ventre.
I took too big a slice. I took more than what I can eat.
9 – Il fait un temps de chien
Literal translation: It’s dog weather
Meaning: the weather is very bad
This is a very useful expression to use when the weather is dreadful- rainy, cold, windy, or all of them at once.
Ne sors pas : il fait un temps de chien
Don’t go out: the weather is awful.
10 – Avoir le cafard
Literal translation: to have the cockroach
Meaning: to feel sad, down or depressed
When you’re in a bad mood, this French idiom is a great one to use. In English we might say ‘to be down in the dumps’. It has an informal register.
Interestingly enough, the French poet Charles Baudelaire invented this word as a synonym for melancholia in his poetry collection ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’:
Parfois il prend, sachant mon grand amour de l’Art,
La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes,
Et, sous de spécieux prétextes de cafard,
Accoutume ma lèvre à des philtres infâmes.
Je ne vais pas bien, j’ai le cafard.
I don’t feel good, I’m feeling down.
11 – Quand les poules auront des dents
Literal translation: when chickens have teeth
Meaning: Not a chance!/ Never
This expression is an awesome way of saying that something will never happen. The English equivalent of this French idiom would be ‘when pigs fly.’ The tone is both informal and quite funny.
Tu seras riche quand les poules auront des dents!
You’ll be rich when pigs fly!
12 – Filer à l’anglaise
Literal translation: to run away English style
Meaning: to leave discreetly, unnoticed, without saying goodbye (often without manners)
The French dedicated this idiom to their neighbors across the Channel for sure!
It certainly alludes to the unsteady relationship between the French and the English throughout history. ‘Filer à l’anglaise’ is used when a person leaves somewhere discreetly, which isn’t a very polite thing to do.
In English one might say ‘to do a runner’.
Hier, pendant la soirée, j’ai filé a l’anglaise
Yesterday, during the party, I left discreetly without saying goodbye.
13 – C’est la fin des haricots
Literal translation: it’s the end of the beans
Meaning: the situation is disastrous and hopeless, it’s all over
Beans are cheap and filling, and they were used as a staple food in times of scarcity. So if beans ran out, well… it really was a hopeless situation. This expression can be used in a variety of situations, such as when someone’s favorite soccer team is losing a match, or after a breakup.
Si on perd ce client, c’est la fin des haricots-
If we lose this client, it’s all over.
Some of the best ways to learn French idioms is to immerse yourself in the culture with movies, podcasts and by speaking with native French people. Knowing a few expressions will help you to avoid some embarrassing situations and make you sound like a fluent French person!