French idiomatic expressions can be hard to understand (as opposed to the expression “C’est la vie”), and French people love to use them all the time.
These expressions, also known as “les expressions idiomatiques,” are phrases that carry a figurative meaning different from their literal meaning. They are used in everyday conversations and add flavor to the language.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced learner of French, understanding and using idiomatic expressions can greatly enhance your communication skills and help you sound more like a native speaker. From “être dans la lune” to “quand les poules auront des dents” French idiomatic expressions are fascinating, amusing, and a key element of French language learning.
Some of those French idioms are quite old but they are still popular in French society.
List of French Idiomatic Expressions
Let’s start with this list of French expressions explained in English!
- Quand les poules auront des dents
Literally: When the chickens will have teeth
It is used to say that something will never ever happen. This French idiomatic expression “Quand les poules auront des dents” is from the end of the 18th century. A synonym for this French idiom would be “À la Saint-Glinglin”. The equivalent in English would be “When pigs fly” which is a funny expression too.
Maman, je veux un nouvel ordinateur.
Bien sûr, quand les poulets auront des dents
Mom, I want a new computer.
For sure, when pigs fly.
- Mettre les points sur les i
Literally: Put the dot on the i
When someone wants to make things clear by adding more details about an issue or subject. An equivalent that you will hear for sure if you watch a rugby game of the French team is “Remettre l’église au milieu du village” (Put back the church in the middle of the village). I would recommend you watch a rugby game with French commentators, they are using tons of French expressions while commenting on the game.
Je vais mettre les points sur les i avec mes enfants.
I will make things clear with my kids.
- Pisser dans un violon
Literally: Peeing in a violin
This French idiomatic expression means that the action or speech is useless and has no efficiency since peeing in a violin won’t produce anything. The expression appeared for the first time written in the 19th century and gained popularity until nowadays.
Faire le nettoyage de son appartement avant de faire une fête c’est comme pisser dans un violon.
Cleaning your apartment before a party is like peeing in a violin.
- Enfoncer des portes ouvertes
Literally: Pushing open doors
The first meaning is when someone is celebrating having overcome a difficulty that did not exist. The idiom dates back to the end of the 18th century. There is nothing glorifying about kicking an open door.
Since this action presents no difficulty, it is from this observation that the expression was born. The second use of the expression is when someone is trying to demonstrate something obvious, stating a banality by presenting it as a discovery.
Dire que la terre est ronde, c’est enfoncer des portes ouvertes.
To say that the earth is round is to push open doors.
- Avoir le rire jaune
Literally: Having the yellow laugh
When someone is forcing himself to laugh. This famous French expression is used when someone is being teased and laughs about it but deep down the person is upset about it. The yellow laugh can also be used when a person does not want the speaker to be embarrassed about his speech.
Even though the color yellow can be seen as a positive color like the sun, gold, or wheat, it has in the past a negative connotation. For example, in the religion, Judas was represented as wearing yellow or there is an expression not popular anymore that is “Être peint en jaune” (Being painted yellow) meaning that your wife cheated on you. Those negative expressions using this color might be the reason that yellow means kind of being fake in that case.
Ça se voit que tu as le rire jaune.
It’s obvious, you have a yellow laugh.
- C’est l’hôpital qui se fout de la charité
Literally: It’s the hospital that doesn’t care about charity.
Someone who makes fun of a default of another person, who himself has. There is an irony in this idiom, a certain sarcasm that fits perfectly with French culture/humor. Few French know the origin of the expression, it is coming from the 17th century when hospitals designate a medical establishment, which could be both religious and secular. At the same time, hospitals run by orders such as the Brothers of Charity or the Sisters of Charity took the name ‘charité’.
In the end, a hospital and a charity were two establishments with the same function but there was some rivalry between those two. The expression is coming from this opposition between hospitals and charities. From my research, the equivalent in English (American) is “that’s the pot calling the kettle black” (c’est le pot qui traite la bouilloire de noir).
Les Belges qui se moquent du mauvais temps en Angleterre, c’est l’hôpital qui se fout de la charité.
The Belgians who make fun of the bad weather in England, that’s the pot calling the kettle black.
- Ne pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué
Literally: Do not sell the bear’s pelt before killing it
A person should not take for granted a thing that is not yet in his possession. This is another French idiom that you will always hear in a sports game when a team is leading and think that the game is over before the end.
L’équipe mène 1/0 mais il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué.
The team leads 1/0 but you can’t sell the bearskin before you kill it.
- Ne pas casser trois pattes à un canard
Literally: Do not break three legs of a duck
This expression designs an action that is easy to make. As you know, a duck has only two legs. In that case, it is impossible to break the three legs of a duck. There is another popular similar French saying is “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire” translated into English “ as “It’s not the sea to drink”.
Faire cuire des pâtes, ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard.
Cooking pasta doesn’t break the three legs of a duck.
- Il fait un froid de canard
Literally: It’s as cold as a duck
An idiom used to express that the weather is pretty cold. The French expression might come from the duck hunt. The hunters have to do it in autumn and most of the time they stay for hours in the cold to be able to shoot the poor animal.
Je ne sors pas dehors, il fait un froid de canard !
I don’t go outside, it’s freezing cold!
- L’habit ne fait pas le moine
Literally: The outfit does not make the monk
Proverb of which we find the first traces in the 13th century. Wearing religious clothes won’t make you a religious person. By making assumptions by the look of a person, you might be wrong. In English, it would be “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Je ne savais pas que vous étiez un fan de musique métal.
Oui, l’habit ne fait pas le moine.
I didn’t know that you were a fan of metal music.
Yes, don’t judge a book by its cover.
- Être dans le même bain
Literally: Being in the same bath
It means to be in the same difficult situation as someone else. The equivalent in English would be “To be on the same boat”. Do not make the mistake associate this expression with “Mettre dans le même bain” translated into English gives “Put in the same bath” which means when a group of people is being judged in the same way.
Avec cet examen, on est dans le même bain.
With this exam, we are in the same boat.
- Mettre la charrue avant les boeufs
Literally: Putting the plough before the oxen
When a person does not act in a logical way. In English, it would be to “put the cart before the horse”, which is quite similar to the French one.
N’oublies pas de mettre tes chaussettes avant de mettre tes chaussures, ça serait mettre la charrue avant les bœufs.
Don’t forget to put on your socks before putting on your shoes, it would be like putting the cart before the horse.
- Huile de coude
Literally: Elbow oil
An idiom that every single French kid heard from their parents. This expression is for an action that can be done with motivation and physical exercise. In other words, it evokes the energy to devote to a work requiring effort.
Avec de l’huile de coude, tu pourras finir de peindre ta chambre aujourd’hui.
With elbow grease, you can finish painting your room today.
- Casser du sucre sur le dos
Literally: Breaking sugar on the back
It means to criticize someone that is not present. In the 19th century, “Sucre” (Sugar) in slang meant to mistreat. Nowadays the verb “sucrer” means “to get robbed”, but it still has a negative significance.
Merci de ne pas casser du sucre sur mon dos quand je vais partir de cette réunion./em>
Thank you for not breaking any sugar on my back when I will leave this meeting.
- Langue de bois
Literally: Tongue of wood
A French idiomatic expression that you can often hear in the news when a journalist is asking a politician not to speak with a tongue of wood. The expression qualifies as a speech devoid of reality, which does not answer the problem posed. The message communicated by the speaker is intentionally fake.
Je vous remercie de ne pas avoir utilisé la langue de bois pour mon interview.
I would like to thank you for not using the tongue of wood for my interview.
- Ça ne mange pas de pain
Literally: It doesn’t eat bread
A French idiom to express that an action is easy to make or it does not require great expense or effort. In that case, there are no risks in doing it so the French would say it doesn’t eat bread.
The expression is from the 17th century when bread had much bigger importance in French society since it represented the main expense for the food budget and so the main food consumption. Saying this expression meant that buying an object for example won’t be deducted from the bread budget meaning it costs nothing.
Je vais vous cuisiner des pâtes, ça ne mange pas de pain.
I’ll cook you some pasta, it doesn’t eat bread.
- Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre
Literally: Having eyes bigger than the belly
Overestimating his capability to do an action. The French expression is mostly used when someone orders too much food and cannot finish it in the end.
T’as eu les yeux plus gros que le ventre en prenant ce dessert.
Your eyes were bigger than your stomach when you took this dessert.
- La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase
Literally: The drop of water that makes the vase overflow
It refers to an over-the-top situation, a situation that has crossed the line. It is a metaphor that appeared in the 19th century, where the contents of a nearly full tank overflow because of one drop. This drop can be understood as a word or action that will provoke an explosion of anger.
Ton insulte c’est la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase.
Your insult is the drop of water that makes the vase overflow.
- Se tourner les pouces
Literally: Turning the thumbs
The French will reproduce this idiom by crossing the fingers of each hand and turning the thumbs around. It means that the person is lazy and doing nothing at all just using his hands for a useless activity.
Peux-tu arrêter de te tourner les pouces et finir cette présentation ?
Can you stop turning your thumbs around and finish this presentation?
- Il y a de l’eau dans le gaz
Literally: There is water in the gas
An idiom that describes a situation with some tension. It is used when there is a clash, an argument in a couple, for example. In the 19th century, for domestic needs, households began to be supplied with gas, produced by coal distillation.
However, this gas contained a fairly high level of water vapor that can cause small explosions and make the flame flicker or even extinguish it. Even though the type of gas changed later on and there were no anymore those little explosions this expression remains still popular today.
Il y a de l’eau dans le gaz en ce moment entre Antoine et Camille.
There is water in the gas at the moment between Antoine and Camille.
- Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre
Literally: Want the butter and the butter money
An idiom that expresses the fact that someone wants everything with only the pros and not the cons. In English, it would be “Have your cake and eat it too”. There is a colloquial joke with this expression, the French tend to add at the end “Et le cul de la crémière” translated into English gives, “and the milk lady’s ass”.
Les Anglais voulaient le beurre et l’argent du beurre en étant dans l’Union européenne.
The English wanted to have their cake and eat it too by being in the European Union.
- Compter pour du beurre
Literally: Counting for butter
Another expression with butter. When someone is being ignored, not given importance. This expression steps apart since in the French language butter is normally seen as a sign of wealth.
Et moi ? Je compte pour du beurre ?
What about me? Do I count as butter?
- Mettre du beurre dans les épinards
Literally: Put butter in the spinach
A third French idiom with butter in this list. It means that the person manages to improve his living conditions and earn more money. This increase in buying power is represented by the action of adding butter to the dish.
La vente de mon pull va mettre du beurre dans les épinards.
The sale of my sweater will put butter in the spinach.
- Il n’y a pas le feu au lac
Literally: There’s no fire at the lake
There is no need to rush, it can wait for later. I’ve learned that at first, the expression was simply “There is no fire”. Then, later on, the French add the absurdity “at the lake” to make fun of the Swiss, their neighborhood.
The French people tend to think that the Swiss people are slow because of their accent. The lake in that case was a reference to lake Geneva (lac Léman) a famous symbol of Switzerland. This modification represents French humor from my point of view, the French love to tease and joke.
On peut le faire cet après-midi, il n’y a pas le feu au lac.
We can do it this afternoon, there is no fire at the lake.
- Avoir le cul entre deux chaises
Literally: Having the ass between two chairs
Being torn between two situations, not knowing what to choose, simply having a dilemma. French idiomatic expression refers to the feeling of discomfort one can feel when sitting between two chairs. This is an expression to use between friends.
Entre toi et François, j’ai le cul entre deux chaises.
Between you and François, I have my ass between two chairs.
- Tirer les vers du nez
Literally: Pull the worms out of the nose
This expression means to get someone to talk. This old expression dates from at least the 15th century. They were a disease called in French “vers rinaires”, a common parasite that was staying in the nose. People were ashamed of telling their doctors. The medical practitioner had to interrogate the patient to make him/her confess, it was said that the doctor was “pulling the worms out of the noses” of the patient.
J’ai dû lui tirer les vers du nez pour savoir s’ il avait pris la dernière part de gâteau.
I had to pull the worms out of the nose to know if he had taken the last piece of cake.
- Se mettre le doigt dans l’oeil
Literally: Put your finger in the eye
It is when a person is grossly mistaken. There are some explanations for this French expression, the eyes can design a lower part of the human body. Another probable explanation is when a person is wrongly doing the sign of the cross by putting his finger in his eye.
Si tu pensais que j’allais le faire, tu pouvais te mettre le doigt dans l’œil !
If you thought I was going to do it, you could put your finger in your eye!
- Cracher dans la soupe
Literally: Spit in the soup
In the past, the soup was considered an essential dish. Spitting in it, therefore, meant refusing something that was perceived as beneficial. You might hear more often the negative version of the expression with “don’t spit in the soup” meaning that the person won’t miss an opportunity.
Je ne crache pas dans la soupe si tu me dis que tu me payes le restaurant.
I won’t spit in the soup if you tell me that the restaurant is on you.
- Chercher la petite bête
Literally: Looking for the little beast
It is when a person is trying hard to discover an error and/or being picky. This expression is coming from the situation when a person has head lice and someone else needs to look for those little insects.
Tu cherches vraiment la petite bête sur cette présentation !
You’re really looking for the little beast on this presentation!
- Péter plus haut que son cul
Literally: Farting higher than your ass
When a person acts in a pretentious way and feels very important. This is probably the most colloquial expression from this list of French idiomatic expressions.
Ce mec pète plus haut que son cul avec sa nouvelle voiture.
This dude farts higher than his ass with his new car.
- C’est simple comme bonjour
Literally: It’s as simple as a hello
The equivalent in English would be “It’s easy as pie”. This French idiom came from the observation of greeting someone. Saying “Hello” to someone is associated with the idea of an act of great simplicity.
Faire ses lacets, c’est simple comme bonjour.
Tying your shoelaces is easy as pie.
- Le cadet de mes soucis
Literally: The youngest of my worries
A French expression that would be translated into English to “The least of my worries”. In French “Le cadet” is a specific word to say the youngest kid of a family. By being the youngest kid, you are the last one, the smallest one. In that case the worry, the issue is the least important.
Trouver un moyen pour rentrer chez moi ce soir est le cadet de mes soucis.
Finding a way home tonight is the least of my worries.
- Comme un coq en pâte
Literally: Like a rooster on paste
It means that this person is having a good life. Long time ago, the rooster was moved with great care for farming exhibitions. In addition, breeders applied a special paste to the feathers of the animals to make them shiny.
Depuis que je suis à la retraite, je suis comme un coq en pâte.
Ever since I retired, I’ve been living the best of my life.
- Passer du coq à l’âne
Literally: Going from rooster to donkey
When a person changes the topic of the conversation with no whatsoever link to the previous one.
Rémi passe tout le temps du coq à l’âne quand il est bourré.
Rémi switches, all the time, the subject of the conversation when he is drunk.
- Changer son fusil d’épaule
Literally: Changing one’s shoulder rifle
When a person changes his mind, his opinion about a subject. In that case, the rifle represents the opinion. The person is changing his point of view like a soldier might change the way he holds a rifle.
L’entraîneur a changé son fusil d’épaule pour la composition de l’équipe.
The coach changed his mind about the composition of the team.
- On n’est pas sorti de l’auberge !
Literally: We did not leave the inn yet!
Something that is complicated to be done. In English, it would be “not be out of the woods”. There are two possible explanations for this French idiom. The first explains that in slang the word “inn” ironically refers to prison. Indeed, a person receives lodging and food but the guest can leave whenever he wants.
Another interpretation would find its origin in Ardèche (A French county) in a criminal case from the beginning of the 19th century. The case is known as the Auberge Rouge. The owners Pierre and Marie Martin of the Auberge (=Inn) of Peyrebeille were accused of scary murders.
Il a mis une heure pour changer le premier pneu de la voiture, on n’est pas sorti de l’auberge !
It took one hour to change the first tire of the car, we did not leave the inn yet!
- Ne pas y aller de main morte
Literally: Don’t go with a dead hand
When a person does act with a lot of energy. The “dead hand” actually symbolizes an inactive or powerless hand. In this way, it is clear that the use of this expression demonstrates an action carried out dynamically, even violently.
Le serveur n’est pas allé de main morte pour remplir mon plat de frites.
The waiter didn’t go with a dead hand to fill my plate with fries.
- Poser un lapin à quelqu’un
Literally: Put a rabbit to someone
The real translation in English is to “Stand someone up”. At the end of the 19th century, lapin (rabbit) meant a refusal of payment. Nowadays, it means refusing, and no-showing at a meeting.
J’ai attendu pendant une heure Vincent. Il m’a posé un lapin !
I’ve been waiting for one hour Vincent, he stood me up!
- Chercher midi à quatorze heure
Literally: Look for noon at 2 p.m
When someone complicates things unnecessarily and sees difficulties where none exist. There is another super colloquial version with “On va pas tortiller du cul pour chier droit” meaning in English “We won’t wiggle our ass to shit straight”, a funny one right?
On va pas chercher midi à quatorze heure pour résoudre ce problème simple.
We’re not going to look for noon at 2 PM to solve this simple problem.
- Les doigts dans le nez
Literally: Fingers in the nose
Achieve an action without difficulty and without effort. This French expression might have appeared for the first time around 1912 in horse racing. The expression was used to say that the jockey arrived first with his fingers up his nose. This image is supposed to show how easy, and how carefree the jockey won a race.
Je l’ai battu au ping-pong les doigts dans le nez !
I beat him at ping pong with the fingers in the nose!
- Pas de nouvelles bonne nouvelles
Literally: No news good news
If we don’t hear from someone, we can assume that nothing bad has happened to them. They are different explanations for this idiom. The first one is from WW1, when a postman brought a letter, it was to announce the death of a soldier.
In the city of Rouen in the state of Normandy, the expression has another meaning. Their jail is named “Bonne-Nouvelle”, in that case, not receiving news from someone means that this person is in jail.
Cela fait quatre jours que je n’ai pas de nouvelle d’Alice. Pas de nouvelles, bonne nouvelle !
It’s been four days since I haven’t heard from Alice. No news, good news!
- Le jeu en vaut la chandelle
Literally: The game is worth the candlelight
In English, it would be a “simple” expression with “It’s worth the risk“. The origin of this French expression dates back to the 16th century when electricity did not yet exist. Card and dice players then had to light the rooms by candlelight during their nightly games, which was very expensive at that time.
So it was a luxury that participants were only willing to pay for in high-stakes games. By winning, they could eventually pay back the high cost of lighting.
Je vais parier sur Paris il y a une cote de trois, le jeu en vaut la chandelle.
I’m going to bet on Paris there’s an odds of three, it’s worth the money.
- C’est la douche froide
Literally: It’s the cold shower
When a person experiences a sudden disappointment, a bad surprise. This is a close feeling when a person takes a shower and the first water jet is completely cold. The person is, most of the time, surprised in a negative way.
L’équipe a encaissé un but à la dernière minute du match, c’est la douche froide !
The team conceded a goal in the last minute of the game, it’s a cold shower!
- Avoir du pain sur la planche
Literally: Having bread on the board
When a person has some work to do. The meaning changed a lot during that time. In the 19th century, this meant that people had enough reserves to face the future. The peasants were preparing large quantities of bread which they kept on a wooden board fixed to the ceiling.
The meaning of the expression was probably later on when convicts had to work in exchange for free food, in that case, bread.
J’ai pas le temps de te parler, j’ai du pain sur la planche.
I don’t have time to talk to you, I have work to do.
- Ne pas être dans son assiette
Literally: Not being on your plate
An expression that means to be in a bad mood or not feeling well. In that case, the plate refers to the physical disposition of a thing or a person or its state of mind.
Je me sens mal aujourd’hui, je ne suis pas dans mon assiette.
I feel bad today, I am not on my plate.
- Quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue
Literally: When we talk about the wolf, we see its tail
You might have heard a shorter version of the idiom with just “Quand on parle du loup”. The exact translation in English is “Speaking of the devil”. This expression is used when someone appears when he or she was the heart of the conversation. In French, it is also as negative as in English since the wolf always had a bad image in France.
Benjamin arrive ! Quand on parle du loup.
Benjamin is coming! Speaking of the devil.
- Les pieds dans le plat
Literally: Feet in the dish
When someone clumsily approached a subject to be avoided without realizing it. It is a visual expression, if you put your feet in the dish it would be a silly mistake.
Quand Pauline a parlé de ta rupture, elle a vraiment mis les pieds dans le plat.
When Pauline talked about your break-up, she really put her feet in the dish.
- Prendre de la bouteille
Literally: Take from the bottle
When someone starts to age, gains experience, meaning the person became better. It is a positive expression to tell someone. This expression was first used in the wine industry, in reference to alcohol that ages in the bottle and gets better. Now it is used to describe people that gain experience.
En vivant cinq à l’étranger, Charles a pris de la bouteille.
While living for five abroad, Charles took a lot of experiences.
- Aux petits oignons
Literally: With small onions
When someone does an action with a lot of care, with a lot of attention. This idiom came from the world of cooking. When someone cooks a dish, he/she might add onions to make it even better.
Ma grand-mère était aux petits oignons pour moi quand je suis allé manger chez elle.
My grandmother was taking care of me when I went to eat at her house.
- N’y voir que du feu
Literally: Seeing only fire
The last idiom from this list of French expressions is when a person doesn’t notice anything. The person is dazzled by the light and cannot see anything. Here, the “fire” would therefore represent a bright and blinding light, which would not allow us to see reality.
Mes parents n’ont vu que du feu quand je suis sorti faire la fête.
My parents did not see anything when I went out partying.
I hope that you liked this article about French expressions. Now you might be able to understand better French while watching a French movie, the French news, or French television.
By the way, what is your favorite French expression so far? I might add it to this list. I now invite you to read my articles about French slang and French insults: