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Learning French Expressions: A Complete Guide to Idioms, Sayings, and Phrases

AdminJun 28, 2024 19 min read

Bonjour, language enthusiasts! Are you ready to be a part of an exciting journey through the vibrant world of French expressions? Whether you're a beginner just starting to explore the language of love or an advanced learner aiming to add authentic flair to your French, mastering common expressions and idioms is key to sounding more natural and understanding native speakers better.

Like any language, French is brimming with idiomatic expressions that often leave literal translators puzzled and amused. These phrases in French can be both a source of frustration and delight for learners. But fear not! In this article, we'll explore various French expressions and idioms, from the common to the clever, and even some with fascinating historical significance.

Definition of French Idiomatic Expressions

French idiomatic expressions, or "expressions idiomatiques" in French, are phrases whose meanings cannot be deduced from the individual words that make them up. They're an integral part of the French language, adding color, humor, and cultural depth to conversations. These expressions often reflect the unique perspectives, history, and cultural values of French-speaking societies.

Idiomatic expressions can be found in all languages, but what makes French idioms particularly interesting is their often poetic and imaginative nature. They frequently use vivid imagery, and references to food, animals, or historical events, making them not just linguistic curiosities but also windows into French culture.

Benefits of Learning French Idiomatic Expressions for Language Learners

1. Enhanced Comprehension

Understanding idioms helps you grasp the true meaning of what native speakers are saying, beyond just the literal translations. This is crucial for following conversations, especially in informal settings or when consuming French media.

2. Cultural Insight

Many expressions offer a window into French history, culture, and way of thinking. Learning these phrases can give you a deeper appreciation of French cultural nuances and societal values.

3. Natural-Sounding Speech

Using idiomatic expressions makes your French sound more authentic and less "textbook." It's one of the key differences between sounding like a learner and sounding like a native speaker.

4. Improved Communication

These phrases often convey complex ideas succinctly, helping you express yourself more effectively and with greater nuance. They can add emphasis, humor, or emotion to your speech in ways that literal language cannot.

5. Fun Factor

Learning and using idioms can make language learning more enjoyable and memorable. The often humorous or bizarre literal translations can serve as excellent memory aids.

6. Increased Confidence

As you start recognizing and using these expressions, you'll feel more confident in your French abilities, encouraging you to engage more with the language.

7. A Better Understanding of Literature and Media

Many French books, films, and songs use idiomatic expressions. Knowing these will enhance your enjoyment and understanding of French cultural products.

Also Read: Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies 

Now, let's understand some popular French expressions and idioms. We'll categorize them to help you navigate this linguistic challenge more easily.

Common French Idioms and Sayings

Funny French Idioms

  1. "Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre" (To have eyes bigger than the belly)

Meaning: To be overly ambitious or to take on more than one can handle

Usage: Often used when someone puts too much food on their plate

Example: "Tu as encore laissé la moitié de ton assiette. Tu avais les yeux plus gros que le ventre!" (You've left half your plate again. Your eyes were bigger than your stomach!)

2. "Être comme un coq en pâte" (To be like a rooster in dough) 

Meaning: To be very comfortable or pampered

Usage: "Chez sa grand-mère, Pierre est comme un coq en pâte." (At his grandmother's, Pierre is treated like royalty.)

Cultural note: This expression dates back to the 16th century and refers to the practice of wrapping a rooster in dough before cooking it, keeping it moist and tender.

3. "Péter les plombs" (To fart lead)

Meaning: To lose one's cool or to go crazy

Usage: "Après trois heures dans les embouteillages, j'ai pété les plombs." (After three hours in traffic, I lost it.)

Cultural note: This informal expression is quite modern and is particularly popular among younger French speakers.

4. "Avoir un petit vélo dans la tête" (To have a little bicycle in the head)

Meaning: To be a little crazy or eccentric

Usage: "Ne fais pas attention à lui, il a un petit vélo dans la tête." (Don't pay attention to him, he's a bit crazy.)

5. "Poser un lapin" (To put down a rabbit)

 

Meaning: To stand someone up

Usage: "J'ai attendu Marie pendant une heure, mais elle m'a posé un lapin." (I waited for Marie for an hour, but she stood me up.)

6. "Avoir la chair de poule" (To have hen's flesh)

Meaning: To have goosebumps

Usage: "Ce film d'horreur m'a donné la chair de poule." (This horror movie gave me goosebumps.)

7. "Être dans les choux" (To be in the cabbages)

Meaning: To be in a difficult situation or to fail

Usage: "Si je ne révise pas, je serai dans les choux pour l'examen." (If I don't study, I'll be in trouble for the exam.)

Clever French Idioms

  1. "Avoir la tête sur les épaules" (To have one's head on one's shoulders)

Meaning: To be level-headed or sensible

Usage: "Marie a la tête sur les épaules, elle fera de bonnes décisions." (Marie is level-headed, she'll make good decisions.)

2. "Chercher midi à quatorze heures" (To look for noon at 2 PM)

Meaning: To overcomplicate things or to look for problems where there aren't any

Usage: "Ne cherche pas midi à quatorze heures, la solution est simple." (Don't overcomplicate things, the solution is simple.)

3. "Avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre" (To have the butter and the money for the butter)

Meaning: To want to have your cake and eat it too

Usage: "Tu ne peux pas avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre, il faut choisir." (You can't have it both ways, you have to choose.)

4. "Donner sa langue au chat" (To give one's tongue to the cat)

Meaning: To give up guessing

Usage: "Je ne sais pas la réponse, je donne ma langue au chat." (I don't know the answer, I give up.)

5. "Avoir plusieurs cordes à son arc" (To have several strings to one's bow)

Meaning: To have multiple skills or talents

Usage: "Marie parle trois langues et joue du piano, elle a vraiment plusieurs cordes à son arc." (Marie speaks three languages and plays the piano, she really has many strings to her bow.)

6. "Mettre les pieds dans le plat" (To put one's feet in the dish)

Meaning: To blunder or to bring up an awkward subject

Usage: "Il a mis les pieds dans le plat en parlant de son ex-femme." (He put his foot in it by talking about his ex-wife.)

7. "Avoir un coup de pompe" (To have a pump hit)

Meaning: To suddenly feel very tired

Usage: "Vers 15h, j'ai toujours un coup de pompe au bureau." (Around 3 PM, I always hit a wall at the office.)

Expressions With Historical Significance

  1. "Revenons à nos moutons" (Let's return to our sheep)

Origin: From a 15th-century French play "La Farce de Maître Pathelin"

Meaning: Let's get back to the topic at hand

Usage: "Nous nous écartons du sujet, revenons à nos moutons." (We're getting off-topic, let's get back to the matter at hand.)

2. "C'est la fin des haricots" (It's the end of the beans)

Origin: From times when beans were the last food resource during famines

Meaning: It's all over, there's no hope left

Usage: "Si nous perdons ce client, c'est la fin des haricots pour l'entreprise." (If we lose this client, it's all over for the company.)

3. "Être sur son trente et un" (To be on one's thirty-one)

Origin: Possibly from the 31st regiment of the French army, known for its smartly dressed soldiers

Meaning: To be dressed up, to wear one's best clothes

Usage: "Pour le mariage, tout le monde était sur son trente et un." (For the wedding, everyone was dressed to the nines.)

4. "Passer de la pommade" (To apply ointment)

Origin: From the practice of applying soothing ointment to wounds

Meaning: To flatter someone excessively

Usage: "Ne lui passe pas trop de pommade, il va finir par se méfier." (Don't flatter him too much, he'll end up being suspicious.)

5. "Faire la grasse matinée" (To have a fat morning)

Origin: From the Middle Ages, when only the rich could afford to sleep in

Meaning: To sleep in or have a lie-in

Usage: "Le dimanche, j'aime faire la grasse matinée." (On Sundays, I like to sleep in.)

6. "Être au four et au moulin" (To be at the oven and the mill)

Origin: From the time when villagers had to use communal ovens and mills

Meaning: To be everywhere at once, to multitask

Usage: "Avec son nouveau travail et ses enfants, elle est au four et au moulin." (With her new job and her children, she's running around doing everything.)

7. "Tomber dans les pommes" (To fall in the apples)

Origin: Possibly a corruption of "tomber en pâmoison" (to faint)

Meaning: To faint or pass out

Usage: "Quand elle a appris la nouvelle, elle est tombée dans les pommes." (When she heard the news, she fainted.)

French Expressions Related to Food

Food plays a significant role in French culture, and this is reflected in many idiomatic expressions. Here are some popular food-related French idioms:

  1. "Avoir la banane" (To have the banana)

Meaning: To have a big smile, to be happy

Usage: "Depuis qu'il a eu sa promotion, il a la banane." (Since he got his promotion, he's been all smiles.)

2. "Raconter des salades" (To tell salads)

Meaning: To tell lies or made-up stories

Usage: "Ne crois pas tout ce qu'il dit, il raconte souvent des salades." (Don't believe everything he says, he often tells tall tales.)

3. "En faire tout un fromage" (To make a whole cheese out of it)

Meaning: To make a big deal out of something

 

Usage: "Ce n'est qu'une petite erreur, n'en fais pas tout un fromage!" (It's just a small mistake, don't make a big deal out of it!)

French Expressions About Animals

Animals feature prominently in French idiomatic expressions. Here are some common animal-related idioms:

  1. "Quand les poules auront des dents" (When hens have teeth)

Meaning: Never (equivalent to "when pigs fly")

Usage: "Il rangera sa chambre quand les poules auront des dents." (He'll tidy his room when pigs fly.)

2. "Avoir d'autres chats à fouetter" (To have other cats to whip)

Meaning: To have other fish to fry

Usage: "Je ne peux pas t'aider maintenant, j'ai d'autres chats à fouetter." (I can't help you now, I have other fish to fry.)

3. "Être une poule mouillée" (To be a wet hen)

Meaning: To be a coward

Usage: "N'aie pas peur de lui parler, ne sois pas une poule mouillée!" (Don't be afraid to talk to him, don't be a chicken!)

Weather-Related French Expressions

Weather is a common topic of conversation in many cultures, and French has several idiomatic expressions related to weather conditions:

  1. "Il fait un temps de chien" (It's dog weather)

Meaning: The weather is terrible

Usage: "Je ne veux pas sortir, il fait un temps de chien." (I don't want to go out, the weather is awful.)

2. "Il tombe des cordes" (It's falling ropes)

Meaning: It's raining heavily

Usage: "N'oublie pas ton parapluie, il tombe des cordes dehors." (Don't forget your umbrella, it's pouring outside.)

3. "Faire un froid de canard" (To make duck cold)

Meaning: It's freezing cold

Usage: "Mets ton manteau, il fait un froid de canard aujourd'hui." (Put on your coat, it's freezing cold today.)

Tips for Learning and Using French Expressions

1. Learn in Context

Instead of memorizing lists, try to learn expressions as you encounter them in books, movies, or conversations. This will help you understand not just their meaning, but also when and how to use them appropriately.

2. Practice Regularly

Try to incorporate new expressions into your daily French practice. Use them in conversations with language partners or try to write short stories using these idioms.

3. Understand the Culture

Many idioms are rooted in French culture and history. Learning about these can help you remember and use the expressions more effectively. It also deepens your understanding of French culture.

4. Use Language Exchange

Practice with native French speakers who can help you use these expressions naturally. They can also explain nuances that might not be apparent from simple translations.

5. Be Careful With Usage

Some expressions may be informal or even vulgar. Always be aware of the context in which you're using them. What's appropriate among friends might not be suitable in a professional setting.

6. Create Mnemonics

For difficult expressions, try creating memory aids to help you remember their meanings. For example, for "avoir le cafard" (to feel down), you might imagine a sad cockroach.

7. Group Similar Expressions

Categorize expressions by theme or meaning to make them easier to remember and use. For example, group all food-related or animal-related expressions together.

8. Use Visual Aids

Draw or find images that represent the literal meaning of the idiom. This can help you remember both the expression and its figurative meaning.

9. Listen to French Music and Podcasts

Many songs and radio shows use idiomatic expressions. This can help you learn how these phrases are used in everyday language.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Using idioms incorrectly is a natural part of the learning process. Native speakers will usually appreciate your effort to use colorful language, even if it's not always perfect.

11. Keep a Journal of New Expressions

When you come across a new idiom, write it down along with its meaning and an example sentence. Review your journal regularly to reinforce your learning.

12. Use Apps and Online Resources

There are many apps and websites dedicated to teaching French idioms. Use these tools to supplement your learning and for quick reference.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using French Expressions

1. Literal Translations

Avoid translating idioms directly from your native language. For example, in English we say "It's raining cats and dogs," but in French, it's "il pleut des cordes" (it's raining ropes).

2. Misusing Formal/Informal Expressions

Some idioms are very casual and shouldn't be used in formal situations. Be aware of the register of each expression you learn.

3. Overuse

While using idioms can make your French sound more natural, overusing them can have the opposite effect. Use them sparingly and appropriately.

4. Mispronunciation

Practice the pronunciation of idioms, as mispronouncing them can change their meaning or make them incomprehensible.

5. Incorrect Verb Conjugation

Pay attention to how verbs in idiomatic expressions should be conjugated. Some are fixed phrases, while others require conjugation based on the subject and tense.

6. Cultural Insensitivity

Some expressions might be considered offensive in certain contexts. Always be mindful of your audience when using idiomatic language.

7. Mixing up Similar Expressions

Some idioms sound similar but have different meanings. Make sure you understand the subtle differences to avoid confusion.

Learning French Expressions With Logos Learning

Learning French expressions is a fun way to enrich your language skills and connect with French culture. These phrases add flavor to your speech and reflect the French way of thinking. Remember, it takes time, so don't worry if you don't get them all at once. Practice and exposure to French media will help you incorporate them naturally. Ne cherchez pas midi à quatorze heures (don't overcomplicate things) and start exploring French idioms. You'll soon speak avec la pêche (with energy), impressing native speakers. Every idiom offers a piece of French culture, from their humor to their history.

Mettez la main à la pâte (get started), and you'll have plus d'une corde à votre arc (more than one skill) in French. Rome ne s'est pas faite en un jour (Rome wasn't built in a day), so be patient.

With Logos Learning’s expert French tutors, your journey on our online tutoring platform will be enjoyable and effective. With these expressions, you're on your way to speaking like a native. Bon courage et bonne chance! (Good luck and best wishes!)

FAQs

  1. How do idioms enhance my French skills?

Idioms make your French sound natural and engaging, helping you understand and participate in everyday conversations like a native speaker.

2. What are fun ways to learn French expressions?

Watch French movies, listen to French music, join conversation groups, and play language games. These activities make learning idioms enjoyable and memorable.

3. How can I ensure I'm using French idioms correctly?

Pay attention to context in conversations and media. Practice using idioms with native speakers or tutors and get feedback to improve your usage.


 

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