20 Rock-solid, Common French Sayings That Have Stood the Test of Time
Food is delicious.
Love makes the world go round.
Friendship makes you feel fuzzy inside.
Work is a fact of life.
Happiness is an ideal to strive for.
There are certain words, phrases and sayings that are untranslatable from one language to another, but there are also some things that everyone understands, regardless of origin.
These sentiments are commonly encapsulated in sayings.
You know the ones I’m talking about: short, pithy statements that convey wisdom and oftentimes a healthy dose of tough love.
Learning these common sayings in French is a great way to créer des liens (create bonds) with other French speakers, and it’ll take your French to the next level to boot!
What Common French Sayings Can Do for You
- Improve your French cultural literacy. French sayings provide insight to native French culture, society and history. The myriad French expressions, proverbs and idioms that revolve around food and wine, for example, are indicative of a culture where gastronomy and conviviality are intertwined. Likewise, you can learn some interesting historical tidbits from various French weather expressions.
- Improve your listening comprehension. French sayings are important pieces for solving the comprehension-puzzle when consuming French media (TV shows, podcasts, books, movies). They also come in handy when participating in conversations with native speakers. Every French learner knows what it’s like to hear native speakers speaking French and to be unable to follow the conversation. Even if you can pick out some words here and there, they can’t always be taken literally. By learning some key French sayings, a whole new (French) world will open up.
- Make you sound more fluent. To be fluent in French, you must become awesome at using pronouns, be able to use the subjunctive on the fly and develop a ridiculously good vocabulary, but these elements are not the be-all and end-all. By integrating French sayings into your repertoire (at all levels of your French-learning journey), your French will immediately sound more French-French and less classroom-French, which is to say, more fluent.
On to the French sayings! On y go (anglicized version of on y va, which means “Let’s go”)!
I Hear Ya! 20 Common French Sayings for Expressing Universal Sentiments
1. Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences.
Literal translation: “One should not trust appearances.”
Meaning: This saying is the English equivalent of “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” or “Looks can be deceiving.” It means that you should get to know someone before you make judgments about him/her. In short, “Don’t make assumptions.”
Usage: This saying is most commonly used to refer to people, particularly those whose appearance seems to be en décalage (mismatched) with their profession. For example: A big, burly man may in fact be a ballerina and that scruffy dude you always see at the bus stop might be a world-renowned opera singer. You might want to get a job that lets you use French, but maybe other people don’t think you even seem like the type to learn French. You never know, so don’t judge.
2. Aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait.
Literal translation: “As soon as said, as soon as done.”
Meaning: In English, the equivalent saying is “It’s as good as done.” It indicates that something is or will be done almost immediately upon request.
Usage: This saying is used most often in the context of giving someone a coup de main (a helping hand) or doing them favor.
— Sarah, peux-tu m’aider à mettre la table ? (Sarah, can you help me set the table?)
— Aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait ! (It’s as good as done!)
3. Bien mal acquis ne profite jamais.
Literal translation: “A badly acquired good never benefits.”
Meaning: In English, the saying goes, “Ill gotten goods seldom prosper,” or “Crime doesn’t pay,” meaning it’s best to be honest because dishonesty doesn’t get you anywhere.
Usage: While this saying explicitly refers to theft, it can be extended to other dishonest behavior, such as lying to get a promotion at work, or sabotaging an adversary’s progress.
4. Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup.
Literal translation: “Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly.”
Meaning: This saying is analogous to “Live life to the fullest” or carpe diem (seize the day)! Notice how mangez bien (eat well) is the first thing on the list. See, what did I tell you? Eating really is central to French culture. Just one more reason why cooking to learn French is a great idea.
Usage: This saying can be used to console that friend of yours (we all have that friend) who worries obsessively about the future or dwells on the past:
Ne te stresse pas ! Mange bien, ris souvent, aime beaucoup ! (Don’t stress! Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly!)
Take note: This expression also works in the informal tu register. Live in the present!
5. À jeune chasseur, il faut un vieux chien.
Literal translation: “For the young hunter, an old dog is needed.”
Meaning: An inexperienced person needs someone older and wiser to show him/her the ropes.
Usage: This saying can either be doled out as advice by an experienced person to his/her apprentice or used by the apprentice him/herself to his/her teacher. In the latter case, the saying is usually a compliment and a display of respect.
6. Après la pluie, le beau temps.
Literal translation: “After the rain, good weather.”
Meaning: This saying is a poetic way of saying “Hang in there.” Even if things are bad at the moment, they’ll get better.
Usage: This saying can be employed as a consolation to a friend who is going through a bit of a rough patch in his/her life.
7. Bien faire et laisser dire.
Literal translation: “Do well and let (them) speak.”
Meaning: Do what is right and don’t pay attention to what others have to say about it.
Usage: This saying can be used in the context of work but also in more morally- or politically-charged contexts as a way to tell someone to do what they believe in, regardless of disapproval from naysayers or critics. You do you!
8. La nuit porte conseil.
Literal translation: “The night brings advice.”
Meaning: This saying is the equivalent of the English “Sleep on it,” which refers to taking one’s time to make an informed decision.
Usage: Say your friend has an important decision to make and is wavering between the available options. Instead of saying YOLO—or rather, On ne vit qu’une seule fois (You only live once)—you could give the more tempered response of La nuit porte conseil.
9. Battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud.
Literal translation: “Strike the iron while it’s hot.”
Meaning: Here’s another saying that is the same in English and French. It refers to a blacksmith’s forging of iron, which requires that the metal be red-hot before its shape can be changed through a series of hammer strikes. This common saying means to take advantage of favorable conditions.
Usage: Use this saying when you’ve got a good momentum going and therefore continue to do whatever it is that you’re doing. Say you’re working on the French future tense and you’re knocking it out of the park—why not tackle the past tense while you’re at it?
10. Chacun voit midi à sa porte.
Literal translation: “Each person sees noon at his/her door.”
Meaning: This saying refers to the way in which each person has their own way of perceiving things and the way this perception guides how he/she interacts with others, sets goals, works and lives. In short, nobody has the same expectations and ambitions. This saying can also refer to a person’s selfishness, when the only thing that matters is his/her point of view.
Usage: This saying is commonly used as a retort to tell someone to stop making comparisons between people because everyone is different. You can also use it when you find it impossible to reason with someone because his/her self-interest reigns supreme.
11. Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée.
Literal translation: “A door must be open or closed.”
Meaning: Pure and simple, “You can’t have it both ways.”
Usage: This saying is used to dole out tough love to the indecisive type who wants to have his/her cake and eat it too.
12. Il ne faut rien laisser au hasard.
Literal translation: “One should leave nothing to chance.”
Meaning: Here’s another no-fuss, no-frills saying. This one means “Plan ahead.”
Usage: This saying is usually employed as a means of giving advice. Sure, there’s a time and a place for a porte-bonheur (lucky charm), but it’s not always to be relied upon.
13. Les murs ont des oreilles.
Literal translation: “The walls have ears.”
Meaning: This saying is used to suggest that one should pay attention to what he/she says, because there’s a chance that he/she could be overheard (and have their words used against him/her).
Usage: This saying is used to urge one’s interlocutor to be discreet when discussing personal matters.
14. Tout est bien qui finit bien.
Literal translation: “All’s well that ends well.”
Meaning: Although we may experience hardship and struggle in the things we do, as long as the final outcomes are successful, such experiences should be considered positive ones overall.
Usage: This is a glass-half-full kind of saying. Use it after a day in which a series of unfortunate events occurred, when you’ve still managed to make it home safe and sound.
15. Les bons comptes font les bons amis.
Literal translation: “Good accounts make good friends.”
Meaning: In English we say “A debt paid is a friend kept.” While the expression explicitly references financial debt, it conveys more broadly the importance of keeping relationships equal.
Usage: You can use it to gently remind someone that friendships involve “give and take,” rather than just “take.”
16. Toute peine mérite salaire.
Literal translation: “All suffering merits salary.”
Meaning: All work deserves recognition or compensation, no matter what.
Usage: This encouraging saying is used most often in reference to work that may be considered by some to be insignificant or menial.
17. Vouloir, c’est pouvoir.
Literal translation: “To want to is to be able to.”
Meaning: This is the French equivalent of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” It means that you can do anything you put your mind to.
Usage: Use this saying to motivate someone who doubts his/her capabilities. You can also use it to encourage yourself when you come across difficult French sentences!
18. La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.
Literal translation: “The reasoning of the strongest is always the best.”
Meaning: This one comes from “Fables de la Fontaine” (La Fontaine’s Fables), specifically the fable “Le loup et l’agneau” (“The Wolf and the Lamb”), which tells the story of a wolf who comes up with a series of improbable excuses in order to justify eating a lamb for dinner. Despite the lamb’s refutations, she is nonetheless eaten, and before she dies she says, La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure. It refers to the way in which one manages to make excuses for his/her wrongdoings.
Usage: This saying is used to express dismay at injustice of all sorts, particularly when there’s a big power differential between opposing forces.
19. La jeunesse est le temps d’étudier la sagesse, la vieillesse est le temps de la pratiquer.
Literal translation: “Youth is the time to study wisdom, old age the time to practice it.”
Meaning: This saying was first used by Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The way I see it, it’s a more positive spin on the English saying “Youth is wasted on the young.” It means that nothing should be taken for granted. One’s vitality should always be appreciated because la vie est courte (life is short)!
Usage: Adults often use this saying as a way of reminding younger people (usually moody teenagers), that they won’t be young forever, so they’d better stop grumbling and start being appreciative of all the benefits of youth. Can’t argue with that!
20. Rien ne sert de courir ; il faut partir à point.
Literal translation: “There’s no point in running; you have to set out in due time.”
Meaning: This one is from the first lines of “Le lièvre et la tortue” (“The Tortoise and the Hare”) by Jean de la Fontaine, and it’s the French version of “Slow and steady wins the race.” There’s no point in starting something with gusto only to putter out in the end. Easy does it!
Usage: This saying extols the virtue of patience. Incidentally, this is a good one for French learners of all levels to keep in mind during the adventure that is learning French.
Work a few of these sayings into your conversations, and you’ll automatically give your French more oomph!