52 Advanced French Expressions Using Familiar Words
Today, we’re going to look at advanced French expressions that use words you probably already know—but with a twist.
These are the kinds of phrases that translation apps like Google Translate may or may not get right, because they often use idiomatic language and alternative meanings of words.
While it might be intimidating to see how many meanings these words can have, taking a look at the different phrases that use a particular word should give you a deeper understanding of its role in the language.
Plus, when you plug these advanced phrases into your sentences, you’ll sound even more fluent!
- Advanced phrases with the word prendre (to take)
- Prendre congé (to leave, to take off)
- Prendre la poudre d’escampette (to use escape powder)
- Prendre conscience (to become aware/to realize)
- Prendre une décision (to make a decision)
- Prendre parti pour (to take sides with)
- Prendre rendez-vous (to make an appointment)
- Se prendre pour le nombril du monde (to consider yourself the navel of the world)
- Advanced phrases with the word affaire (thing, business, case, contract, problem…)
- Advanced phrases with the word tête (head)
- Se creuser la tête (to think hard)
- Faire la tête (to have a pout/to sulk)
- Perdre la tête (to lose one’s memory or one’s mind)
- Ni queue ni tête (making no sense)
- Garder la tête froide (to remain calm)
- En avoir par-dessus la tête (to be fed up)
- Une tête brûlée (a hothead)
- Avoir une tête à claques (to be stupid or annoying)
- Avoir la grosse tête (to be arrogant)
- Advanced phrases with the word coup (swift action)
- Advanced phrases with the word jour (day)
- Advanced French idioms involving plants and animals
- Être fleur bleue (to be a blue flower)
- Avoir un cœur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart)
- Donner sa langue au chat (give your tongue to the cat)
- Se regarder en chiens de faïence (to look at each other like porcelain dogs)
- C’est un panier de crabes (it’s a basket of crabs)
- La montagne accouche d’une souris (the mountain gives birth to a mouse)
- Avoir du plomb dans l’aile (to have lead in one’s wing)
- Montrer patte blanche (show a white paw)
- Advanced miscellaneous French phrases
- Bien mener sa barque (to steer one’s boat well)
- Tirer des plans sur la comète (draw plans on the comet)
- Promettre monts et merveilles (promise mountains and marvels)
- S’attirer les foudres de quelqu’un (attract thunderbolts from someone)
- Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir (to have a Punch doll in the drawer)
- Aborder la question (to address the issue)
- Incontestable que (without a doubt)
- Jusqu’à preuve du contraire (until proven otherwise)
- À titre d’exemple (as an example/for example)
- Engager la conversation (to start a conversation/to start talking)
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Advanced phrases with the word prendre (to take)
Prendre congé (to leave, to take off)
Le repas est terminé. Je vais prendre congé.
(The meal is over. I’m going to take off.)
The literal translation is a little easier here for English speakers since you can think of “taking leave.” This expression often refers to taking time off work, or taking a “leave of absence.”
Prendre la poudre d’escampette (to use escape powder)
Il a pris la poudre d’escampette.
(He’s made a quick exit.)
Escampette comes from old French for “escape” or “flight.” So, this is an idiom for when someone makes a quick exit, like a magician using a dash of powder to seemingly vanish in a puff of smoke.
Prendre conscience (to become aware/to realize)
Il faut prendre conscience que cela a dû être difficile pour elle de partir dans ces conditions.
(We need to realize that it must have been difficult for her to leave in those circumstances.)
Prendre une décision (to make a decision)
Il faut prendre une décision avant demain.
(We need to make a decision before tomorrow.)
Note that in English you “make” a decision, whereas here you “take” one.
Prendre parti pour (to take sides with)
Il a pris parti pour la meilleure équipe.
(He took sides with the best team.)
To remember this one, it might be helpful for English speakers to think of “taking someone’s part” in an argument, for example.
Just be aware that parti doesn’t actually translate to the English word “part” by itself. Confusingly, though, partie-with-an-e can refer to a part or section of something, while parti can refer to a political party, but neither of them refers to the kind of party-with-a-y in English that often includes food, drinks and music.
Prendre rendez-vous (to make an appointment)
Avez-vous pris rendez-vous chez le médecin ?
(Did you make an appointment with the doctor?)
Here is another instance where you need to watch out for the “make”/“take” switch.
Se prendre pour le nombril du monde (to consider yourself the navel of the world)
Ces filles se prennent pour le nombril du monde.
(These girls are self-important.)
This is exactly like saying someone “thinks they’re the center of the universe” in English. (If you’re wondering why the navel, it may be that the word in both English and French comes from the Latin umbilicus, which could mean “center” as well as “belly button.”)
This use of “take” appears in English expressions like “what do you take me for?”
Advanced phrases with the word affaire (thing, business, case, contract, problem…)
Avoir l’affaire en main (to have things in hand)
Ne vous inquiétez pas. J’ai l’affaire en main.
(Don’t worry. I have everything under control.)
This translates very well in a literal sense to the expression “to have something in hand” in English.
Se tirer d’affaire (to escape a situation)
Il a eu un grave accident de voiture, mais il s’est tiré d’affaire.
(He had a serious car accident, but he came out safe and sound.)
Être dans une affaire (to be involved in a case/situation)
Il prétend qu’il est innocent, mais il est dans l’affaire jusqu’au cou.
(He says he’s innocent, but he is fully implicated in this case.)
Une mauvaise affaire (a bad deal)
Acheter cette propriété a été une mauvaise affaire pour mon client.
(Buying this property was a bad deal for my client.)
Faire capoter l’affaire (to make a deal fail)
Il a fait capoter l’affaire à des fins malhonnêtes.
(He made the deal fail for dishonest purposes.)
Capoter literally means “to flip” or “to overturn,” but as you can see here, it’s used in a more figurative sense as well.
Advanced phrases with the word tête (head)
Se creuser la tête (to think hard)
Je me suis creusé la tête pour résoudre ce problème.
(I thought hard in order to solve this problem.)
Similar to “I’ve racked my brain” in English. Another expression you may be interested in learning along with this one is se casser la tête (to worry/stress).
Faire la tête (to have a pout/to sulk)
Je ne sais pas ce qu’il a, mais il fait la tête depuis ce matin.
(I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he’s been sulking since this morning.)
Perdre la tête (to lose one’s memory or one’s mind)
Mon Dieu, elle a perdu la tête.
(My God, she’s lost her mind.)
Ni queue ni tête (making no sense)
Cette histoire n’a ni queue, ni tête.
(This story makes no sense.)
This literally means “neither head nor tail,” which is equivalent to the English expression, of course.
Garder la tête froide (to remain calm)
Malgré le danger, il a gardé la tête froide durant cette expérience.
(Despite the danger, he remained calm throughout this experience.)
Another one that’s easy to remember as English has a literal equivalent: “to keep a cool head.”
En avoir par-dessus la tête (to be fed up)
J’en ai par-dessus la tête des tes histoires.
(I’m fed up with your problems.)
This is literally “to have it above the head.” It has some similarity to the English equivalent “to have it up to here”—usually spoken with a hand raised over one’s head to show how high “here” is.
Une tête brûlée (a hothead)
Ces aventuriers sont des têtes brûlées.
(Those adventurers are hotheads.)
Avoir une tête à claques (to be stupid or annoying)
Quelle tête à claques celle-là !
(How annoying she is!)
This is literally “to have a good head for slapping.”
Avoir la grosse tête (to be arrogant)
Le succès lui a donné la grosse tête.
(Success made him arrogant.)
Yet another with an easy English equivalent: “to have a big head.”
Advanced phrases with the word coup (swift action)
The word coup essentially means “swift action,” but its uses are highly versatile. Its nuances include “hit,” “cut,” “gust” and more.
Not only do multiple expressions in French have coup in them, but you probably already know this word has been adopted into English, perhaps most notably in “coup d’état” (a sudden overthrow of government), “coup de grâce” (a quick, merciful killing blow) or simply “coup” (any swift triumph).
Once you have a general idea of coup and its versatility, the following expressions aren’t too tricky. In fact, you could probably figure out some of them on your own. If you’ve spent any serious amount of time learning French, you’ve probably managed to pick up a few coup phrases just from context while reading books or newspapers.
If you’re looking for more resources to listen to how natives use coup and other words, you can check out the YouTube channel Easy French, where they interview and talk to regular French speakers about different topics.
You can also practice with the FluentU program, which lets you watch authentic French videos like movie clips and music videos. Each video has interactive captions and quizzes. For advanced expressions like these, FluentU’s contextual dictionary can also come in handy.
Avoir le coup de main (to have skill)
Il a un sacré coup de main.
(He’s very skilled.)
In English, we might say “he has a special touch.”
Donner un coup de main (to give a helping hand)
Peux-tu me donner un coup de main ?
(Could you give me a hand?)
Jeter un coup d’œil (to take a look)
Peux-tu jeter un coup d’œil à mes devoirs ?
(Could you take a look at my homework?)
Avoir un coup d’avance (to be a step ahead)
Les champions auront toujours un coup d’avance sur les autres.
(Champions will always be a step ahead of the others.)
Donner un coup de poing (to hit somebody with your fist)
Il m’a donné un coup de poing dans la figure.
(He hit me in the face with his fist.)
Un coup de vent (a gust of wind)
Le journal a été emporté par un coup de vent.
(The newspaper was carried away with a gust of wind.)
Un coup de chapeau (a tip of the hat)
Vous méritez un coup de chapeau pour ce merveilleux spectacle.
(You deserve a reward/salute for this wonderful show.)
Advanced phrases with the word jour (day)
Au petit jour (early in the morning)
La mer est toujours calme au petit jour.
(The sea is always calm early in the morning.)
Voir le jour (to be born)
Il a vu le jour pendant la guerre.
(He was born during the war.)
Mettre à jour (to update)
J’ai mis mon rapport à jour.
(I updated my report.)
Mettre au grand jour (to expose something completely)
Les journalistes ont mis la vérité au grand jour.
(The journalists have completely exposed the truth.)
Ses jours sont comptés (his/her/their [singular] days are numbered)
Sa santé s’est dégradée et ses jours sont comptés.
(His health declined and his days are numbered.)
De jour en jour (more and more/day by day)
La situation économique s’améliore de jour en jour.
(The economy is getting better day by day.)
Advanced French idioms involving plants and animals
Être fleur bleue (to be a blue flower)
Jean-Paul est très fleur bleue.
(Jean-Paul is highly sentimental.)
If you’re a blue flower, then you’re overtly sentimental, perhaps to the point of being naïve. This idiom originates from the works of Novalis, a German poet of the romantic era. The blue flower is a symbol of poetry that a minstrel happens upon.
Avoir un cœur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart)
Il a un cœur d’artichaut.
(He shares his affections often.)
The idea of this phrase is that an artichoke has many leaves in the layers leading to the heart, and the leaves can be pulled apart and shared easily with many people.
A person with an artichoke heart shares their affections easily. It can also describe someone who falls in love often, but is never satisfied.
Donner sa langue au chat (give your tongue to the cat)
Nous finissons toujours par donner notre langue au chat.
(We always gave up in the end.)
It’s a phrase for completely giving up, especially referring to a verbal answer to a riddle. If you don’t know the answer, then your tongue is no use to you, so the cat might as well have it!
Se regarder en chiens de faïence (to look at each other like porcelain dogs)
Mes sœurs se regardent en chiens de faïence.
(My sisters look at each other like porcelain dogs.)
This is a very apt phrase for two people glaring at each other with hostile looks. Ornamental dogs on a mantelpiece do nothing but glare at each other all day long.
C’est un panier de crabes (it’s a basket of crabs)
Mon dieu, la maison est un panier de crabes.
(My God, everyone in this house is at each other’s throats.)
A bunch of crabs all trying to escape from a basket is not very pleasant. With all those pincers shoved into a small area, it’s no wonder they’re literally crabby!
La montagne accouche d’une souris (the mountain gives birth to a mouse)
Je suis très déçu. La montagne accouche d’une souris !
(I am very disappointed. A great effort came to nothing!)
This is an idiom for describing a huge effort that produces a tiny outcome. You can imagine that, in a fairy tale, a huge mountain giving off smoke and flame may be expected to bring forth a fearsome dragon. But instead, it produces a fluffy mouse. What a letdown.
Avoir du plomb dans l’aile (to have lead in one’s wing)
Il a du plomb dans l’aile !
(He’s in a bad place!)
This is a very visual way of saying that someone isn’t doing very well, often due to circumstances.
You can imagine a little bird flapping its wings but not going anywhere because it has heavy lead stuck between its feathers. It’s hampered, it’s going nowhere fast and its situation is only going to get worse unless it can get help. You might use this phrase for someone who is homeless or depressed.
Montrer patte blanche (show a white paw)
Il faut montrer patte blanche.
(You must show your credentials.)
To show a white paw means to show your credentials. It originates from a fable where a goat was told only to open the door to an animal who could show a white paw. Wolves have grey paws, so they couldn’t enter.
Advanced miscellaneous French phrases
Bien mener sa barque (to steer one’s boat well)
Elle mène bien sa barque.
(She’s steering her boat well.)
This is a phrase for saying that someone has done alright for themselves and achieved a lot in their lives.
In your boat, traveling down the river of life, you have managed to avoid temptations and put yourself on the right course, overcoming any obstacles you may have come across. You have now made it to the ocean of success. Congrats.
Tirer des plans sur la comète (draw plans on the comet)
Ils tirent de plans sur la comète.
(They’re counting their chickens before they’ve hatched.)
A phrase for describing someone who is counting on something that isn’t certain to happen. An English equivalent could be counting chickens before they hatch.
Promettre monts et merveilles (promise mountains and marvels)
Pendant la campagne électorale, les candidates promettent monts et merveilles.
(During the election campaign, the candidates promise things they can’t deliver.)
This is a semi-sarcastic way of saying that someone is promising something that they can’t deliver.
When someone promises you that they’ll create a mountain or other marvels for you, it’s obvious that their promises are empty because there’s no way that they can produce those things.
S’attirer les foudres de quelqu’un (attract thunderbolts from someone)
Elle s’est attiré les foudres de Jacques.
(She achieved an angry response from Jacques.)
This is a phrase to illustrate when someone is aggravated and responds angrily.
It originates from the belief that thunder and lightning were the ultimate signs that the Gods had been angered. You can’t get a more severe response than if you attract thunderbolts from someone!
Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir (to have a Punch doll in the drawer)
Elle a un polichinelle dans le tiroir.
(She has a bun in the oven.)
This is a whimsical phrase for being pregnant, like “having bun in the oven” in English. (A Punch doll, if you’re wondering, is a kind of puppet-like Punch and Judy.)
Aborder la question (to address the issue)
Il faudrait aborder la question le plus tôt possible.
(We need to address the issue as soon as possible.)
Incontestable que (without a doubt)
Il est incontestable que vous êtes le meilleur.
(Without a doubt, you’re the best.)
Jusqu’à preuve du contraire (until proven otherwise)
Elle n’a pas encore démissionné, donc jusqu’à preuve du contraire, elle fait toujours partie de cette entreprise.
(She has not resigned, so until proven otherwise, she’s still part of this company.)
À titre d’exemple (as an example/for example)
Je citerai l’histoire de Sophie à titre d’exemple.
(I’ll mention Sophie’s story as an example.)
Engager la conversation (to start a conversation/to start talking)
J’ai engagé la conversation pour casser le silence.
(I started talking to break the ice.)
Okay, your turn now!
Now that you have a stronger grip on the nuances of some familiar French words, you can use these advanced expressions to build more complex, fluent sentences. Don’t worry if you fool Google Translate. Other French speakers will understand you perfectly!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)