Cats, Comets and Crabs: 15 Advanced French Phrases Using Weirdly Wonderful Imagery
Love it when language makes you laugh?
These curious French phrases are sure to make you snicker and leave you completely bamboozled as to what they mean.
Idiomatic language is the hardest thing to grasp when learning a language, and using it improperly (or not understanding it) is a tell-tale sign that you aren’t a native.
But don’t panic, this guide will help you to navigate the quintessentially French landscape of the imagery idiom and help you to truly engage in new social scenarios.
On top of all that, these phrases are fun and will help you gain greater insight into French culture.
15 Advanced French Phrases Using Whimsical Imagery
The French love imagery. It’s one of the key features of their romantic language.
At first, it can seem ridiculous or just overkill, but as you get used to using these phrases, the charm shines through and you realize both that these phrases illustrate scenarios better than you thought they would, and that they’re lyrical but somewhat obsolete.
1. La montagne accouche d’une souris
Literal translation: The mountain gives birth to a mouse.
This is a great and powerful idiom for describing a huge build-up or expectation that produces a tiny, powerless outcome.
A huge mountain may be imagined to give birth to a fearsome dragon, as you would hear tell of in a fairy tale of some kind. But instead it gives birth to a fluffy mouse. Great. A huge anti-climax and just not what you wanted. Bear that in mind when you’re using this phrase.
Example: Je suis très déçu. La montagne accouche d’une souris ! (I am very disappointed. Great expectations came to nothing!)
2. Avoir du plomb dans l’aile
Literal translation: To have lead in one’s wing.
It’s a very visual way of saying that someone isn’t doing very well, often that they’re in a bad way 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.
Example: Il a du plomb dans l’aile ! (He’s in a bad place!)
3. Bien mener sa barque
Literal translation: To steer one’s 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 in the right direction, overcoming any obstacles you may have come across. You have now made it to the ocean of success. Congrats.
Example: Elle mène bien sa barque. (She’s steering her boat well.)
4. Être fleur bleue
Literal translation: To be a blue flower.
It 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. If you’re a blue flower, then you’re overtly sentimental, perhaps to the point of being naïve.
Example: Jean-Paul est très fleur bleue. (Jean-Paul is highly sentimental.)
5. Tirer des plans sur la comète
Literal translation: Draw plans on the comet.
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.
For this phrase, you can imagine plans that are unstable or in the hands of the Gods. It also serves to make a mockery of the plans. What good are plans that are in outer space? You can wave goodbye to them as the comet passes!
Example: Ils tirent de plans sur la comète. (They’re counting their chickens before they’ve hatched.)
6. Promettre monts et merveilles
Literal translation: Promise mountains and marvels.
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 these things.
Example: Pendant la campagne électorale, les candidates promettent monts et merveilles. (During the election campaign, the candidates promise things they can’t deliver.)
7. S’attirer les foudres de quelqu’un
Literal translation: Attract thunderbolts from someone.
This is a phrase to illustrate when someone is aggravated and responds angrily.
This phrase 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!
Example: Elle s’est attiré les foudres de Jacques. (She achieved an angry response from Jacques.)
8. Montrer patte blanche
Literal translation: Show a white paw.
It means to show your credentials. Seems a bit bizarre, doesn’t it?
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. If you can show a white paw, it’s definitely safe to let you in.
Example: Il faut montrer patte blanche. (You must show your credentials.)
9. Avoir un cœur d’artichaut
Literal translation: To have an artichoke heart.
This is a phrase used to describe people who fall in love often and are never satisfied in a relationship. It doesn’t always cover love, and can just mean those who share their affections often.
The idea of this phrase is that an artichoke has many leaves in the layers leading to the heart. By the time you get to the heart, you have many leaves that you can give away to anyone. Might sound a bit odd, but next time you’re in France, try some artichoke antipasti. It might not help you achieve fluency, but it tastes delicious!
Example: Il a un cœur d’artichaut. (He shares his affections often.)
10. Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir
Literal translation: To have a punch doll (something akin to a marionette) in the drawer.
This is a very whimsical phrase for being pregnant.
It doesn’t really seem to relate at all to being pregnant, and the very strange idea of a punch doll with a big nose sitting in a dresser drawer seems to make light of pregnancy like “bun in the oven” does in the English language.
Example: Elle a un polichinelle dans le tiroir. (She has a bun in the oven.)
11. Se regarder en chiens de faïence
Literal translation: To look at each other like china (porcelain) dogs.
This is a very apt phrase for two people glaring at each other with hostile looks.
China dogs on a mantelpiece do nothing but glare at each other all day long and they do so with a stern look on their face. Everybody knows two people who are definitely like china dogs when they see each other!
Example: Mes sœurs se regardent en chiens de faïence. (My sisters look at each other like china dogs.)
12. C’est un panier de crabes
Literal translation: It’s a basket of crabs.
A phrase to describe people at each other’s throats.
A basket of crabs, not the friendliest bunch. They’re literally crabby, with all those pincers going and shoved in a small area, it can’t be pleasant to be a crab in a basket. Just remind yourself of that next time you’re with a group of people that really don’t get along.
Example: Mon dieu, la maison est un panier de crabes. (My God, everyone in this house is at each other’s throats.)
13. Se prendre pour le nombril du monde
Literal translation: To consider yourself the navel of the world.
This is a phrase for describing people who are too self-important.
Why navel? Nobody knows. But if the world did have a navel, these people would be in it, talking about themselves and admiring their reflections.
Example: Ces filles se prennent pour le nombril du monde. (These girls are self-important.)
14. Prendre la poudre d’escampette
Literal translation: Use escape (getaway) powder.
Escampette comes from old French for “escape” or “flight.” So, this is a phrase for when someone makes a quick exit.
At last, an idiom that means what it sounds like. You can breathe easy when this one comes up in conversation. Imagine someone who wants to get away so badly that they put powder over their heads that helps them get away even quicker. Kind of like when your great aunt starts talking about her youth.
Example: Il a pris la poudre d’escampette. (He’s made a quick exit.)
15. Donner sa langue au chat
Literal translation: Give your tongue to the cat.
It’s a phrase for completely giving up, especially referring to a verbal answer to a riddle/joke.
This phrase sounds like something out of a horror movie, but don’t fret, it’s just a strange way of saying that your tongue is no use to you, so the cat might as well have it because you don’t know what to say. Cats crop up in a lot of French idioms, turns out they really like them.
Example: Nous finissons toujours par donner notre langue au chat. (We always gave up in the end.)
That’s the end of the super guide, so go have fun using your new, whimsical idioms!