Are you yourself in French?
Can you see your unique personality reflected in the French language?
You may have all the grammar down pat.
Even the tricks and sounds pose no problem, and you use eh, ah and hein with the best of ’em.
But how about French emotions? Expressions? Are you, you?
Can you be true to yourself in your adopted language?
This is the big crossroads.
The challenge is to fully express yourself in French and truly mold language to reflect your personality.
One way to start doing this is through idiomatic expressions.
Though we’ve probably never realized this about our own native language, idiomatic expressions go a long way in defining a person’s characteristics and how they present themselves.
Who are you? Are you funny, sarcastic, moody, playful?
When all else fails and there are no words to describe a feeling, leave it to idioms to do the job!
French idioms can be a scary thought—I know, especially since we associate them with figurative meanings rather than literal ones. This is extra hard when thinking and speaking in multiple languages, because some idioms just don’t translate well.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that there are common, everyday English idiomatic expressions you might already have under your belt that are exactly the same in French, word for word.
Maybe you were saving idioms for last on your French learning list, but starting with these expressions will make idiom mastery seem easy.
Here are 13 French expressions to get you started that you’ll never forget!
13 Easy French Idiomatic Expressions You’ll Never Forget
1. Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre
Ever go to a restaurant and order more food than you can handle? Or how about when you believed going to an all-you-can-eat buffet was the best idea ever, but then realized it actually wasn’t.
Stuffed and unable to take in another bite, you’ll say something like, “j’ai eu les yeux plus gros que le ventre !” or “I had eyes bigger than my stomach”—yep, I know you’ve heard this before. This phrase translates exactly the same in English and French, and it means the same thing in both languages.
Pourquoi nous avons commandé toute cette nourriture ? (Why did we order all this food?)
Parce que nous avions les yeux plus gros que le ventre, c’est pour ça ! (It’s because we had eyes bigger than our stomachs, that’s why!)
The French have those massively-portioned dinners too—it’s not just an American thing—so when you find yourself at five-course French sit-down (l’apéro, entrée, plat principal, dessert, et fromage) and realize there’s no way you’re fitting it all down, tell them that vous avez les yeux plus gros que le ventre.
2. Coûter un bras
After you’ve ceased all eating and end your pleasant dinner, you’ll nicely ask for the check: “l’addition, s’il vous plaît.”
But if you bit off more than you can chew, your eyes are most likely jumping out of your head as your mouth drops to the floor because you’re thunderstruck by the price of bill.
Either way, you pay, leave and say to yourself, “ce dîner m’a coûté un bras !” That dinner “cost me an arm and a leg!” (It must have hurt your arm to hand in all that cash or sign that credit slip—just kidding).
This is a French and English idiomatic way to say, “that was really expensive,” but for some particular reason the French use bras (arm) or jambe (leg) at separate times and in separate expressions, never both in the same phrase. English speakers like to throw both an arm and a leg in the same sentence, such as “cost me an arm and a leg.”
When French speakers use, m’a coûté une jambe, it’s more literal than coûté une bras. Coûter une jambe is expressed to describe an instance where a person went off to work or performed a duty that literally cost him a leg in the process, as in losing a leg or getting hurt. Like this:
Le pauvre, il est allé aider sa mère avec le tracteur et ça lui a coûté une jambe ! (Poor guy, he went to help his mother with the tractor and it cost him his leg.)
3. Ne pas mettre tous ses œufs dans le même panier
If you’re vegan you won’t be saying this expression anytime soon. Or will you?
It’s okay if you do! Remember that idioms aren’t literal. So when we say ne mets pas tous tes œufs dans le même panier, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” we’re not actually referring to eggs.
Notice that I switched the placement of words from the general, infinitive phrase ne pas mettre to ne mets pas. I also changed “ses œufs” (one’s eggs) to “tes œufs” (your eggs). Due to conjugation rules this happens with many French idioms, so keep in mind that many of these expressions can be conjugated and modified to fit specific situations!
Fun fact: ne mets pas tous tes œufs dans le même panier is neither of French or English origin, but Spanish. The idiom was first seen in a line of the brilliant Spanish novella “Don Quixote” (said by Sancho Panza), and has somehow made its way into French and English.
What does it mean?
Œufs (eggs) are symbolic for “options,” “opportunities” or “resources,” so saying ne mets pas tous tes œufs dans le même panier, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” means to leave your options open, or don’t count on one thing. Here’s an example scenario:
J’ai un entretien d’embauche demain ! (I have a job interview tomorrow!)
Ah ouais ? Très bien ! Mais ne mets pas tous tes œufs dans le même panier ! (Oh yeah? Great! But don’t put all your eggs in one basket!)
4. C’est du gâteau
There’s a myth about Marie Antoinette and gâteau (cake): she uttered something about letting peasants “eat cake” that induced the rest of the French society to condemn her.
Because when there was a huge bread shortage and the lower class citizens (peasants) were running out of their biggest food resource, the only solution Marie Antoinette could come up with was, “let them eat cake!” This was virtually impossible since cake was too pricey for the lower class. Her disregard infuriated everyone.
In French the famous phrase goes more like this: qu’ils mangent de la brioche ! (let them eat brioche!), which is actually a type of bread—not cake—that’s richer and sweeter than baguette. Then again, this is a total myth and there’s no factual evidence to back any of this up—just a nice little piece of legend from the French revolution.
So what does the idiom c’est du gâteau have anything to do with this fascinating story?
Nothing. Other than the word “cake” and the fact that we have the same exact, literal expression in English, “it was a piece of a cake.” Yes I know—you got me, c’est du gâteau literally translates to “it’s cake,” but it does hold the same meaning as “piece of cake,” an English idiom for describing an easy task.
There are circumstances when c’est du gâteau is said sarcastically, like when a task was evidently difficult.
J’ai fini ma thèse ! C’était du gâteau ! (I finished my thesis! It was a piece of cake!)
5. Mieux vaut tard que jamais
You’re thinking about that big French assignment you haven’t even begun to look over yet. You’re avoiding it at all costs, waiting for the last minute. What a procrastinator!
If this is a good description of you (we might have a little procrastination in all of us) then your favorite expression could be mieux vaut tard que jamais !, which literally translates to “better late than never!”—though I hope you’re certainly not turning assignments in late!
The phrase means exactly what it says, and may have moved into both the French and English languages to help procrastinators rationalize their actions. Since we have procrastinators in all languages, it stuck.
J’ai un projet à rendre que je n’ai pas encore commencé ! (I have a report due that I still haven’t started!)
Mieux vaut tard que jamais ! (Better late than never!)
6. Les actes valent mieux que les mots
—Okay so I lied, because this French idiomatic expression doesn’t translate exactly to our English version, but it’s very, very close.
Les actes valent mieux que les mots, “actions are worth more than words” is the precise verbatim—though if you’re familiar with it, you’ll know that most English speakers tend to say “actions speak louder than words.”
Les actes valent mieux que les mots, “actions speaker louder than words” is so trendy in English that it has morphed into other forms of expression, like “show me, don’t tell me,” and one of Benjamin Franklin’s personal quotes, “well done is better than well said,” il vaut mieux agir que parler—which happens to be another literal idiom the English and French share, but let’s not stray too far from the nest.
Widely used among honorable leaders, les actes valent mieux que les mots was also said by Napoléon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. But if you’re not a future politician or general—that’s fine! There are multiples ways to flaunt this phrase, like this:
Oui, oui, je promets de tout faire tout seul à partir d’aujourd’hui. (Yes, yes, I promise to do everything on my own starting today.)
T’es sûr ? Les actes valent mieux que les mots ! (You sure? Actions speaker louder than words!)
7. Plus facile à dire qu’à faire
To stay on the same topic, plus facile à dire qu’à faire, “easier said than done,” is a French and English expression that could be an idiomatic response to the prior one, les actes valent mieux que les mots.
In essence, plus facile à dire qu’à faire has a humbler tone and would be related to someone who recognizes their fallbacks and incapabilities, while les actes valent mieux que les mots is normally said to a person as a form of constructive criticism. Here’s an example of plus facile à dire qu’à faire:
Alors, tu m’avais dit que tu allais commencer le jardinage cette semaine, qu’est-ce qui s‘est passé ? (So, you told me you were going to begin the gardening this week, what happened?)
Ouais, je n’ai pas eu le temps, c’est plus facile à dire qu’à faire, mais je vais le faire, ne t’inquiète pas. (Yeah, I didn’t have the time, it’s “easier said than done,” but I’ll do it, don’t worry.)
8. La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid
This is another French-English idiom I lied about. It doesn’t have an exact translation, but it still comes very close.
La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” is an old time phrase that’s been accredited to French author Joseph Marie Eugène Sue in the novel “Mathilde” (although there are beliefs it might’ve been taken from another unknown source before that). The English translator of “Mathilde” coined the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” in his adaptation of the book in 1846, which is considered the first time the idiom appeared in our language.
In case you already noticed the slight differences between our English rendition and the French idiom, mange (eat) is replaced by “served” and vengeance is replaced with “revenge” (though the last two mean the same thing since vengeance is one of those existing French words officially part of our English language).
La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid are words of wisdom that depict the way revenge should be, slow and painful. Instead of avenging yourself immediately, as most furious people would, this quote assures that if you wait it out by letting the dish (revenge) get cold, it’ll turn out to be a much more satisfying meal.
This type of revenge is popularly portrayed in films and is typically left up to the universe in a “they’ll get theirs” kind of way. So when it does happen, or you notice it, think of this expression.
T’as vu le film Cendrillon ? À la fin elle est couronnée princesse ! (Did you see the film Cinderella? At the end she’s crowned princess!)
La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid. (Revenge is a dish best served cold.)
9. Ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé
What’s your favorite tea flavor?
Earl Grey? Chamomile? Mint? Jasmine? Where am I going with this? Do you believe that if you and another person share the same taste in tea, then you’re on the same page? Possibly, possibly not, but it’s an idiomatic expression that both the English and French share.
Ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé, “it’s not my cup of tea,” can be clearly attributed to Britain, as they still have their “tea-time” hour, but it’s an expression we use commonly today to nicely say we don’t concur or agree, or to even politely turn down a proposal we’re not fond of.
It can also mean the opposite though, indicating that you are in accordance or that someone or something is your “cup of tea,” tasse de thé.
Merci pour l’invitation, mais ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé. (Thank you for the invitation, but it’s not my cup of tea.)
Il est vraiment ma tasse de thé. (He’s truly my cup of tea.)
10. J’en ai jusque-là
This one is favored by parents, perhaps stressed students, bosses and coworkers too, but I think we’d like to keep it in the parental frontiers, because if you’re hearing from anyone else it’s not really on a positive note.
If you’re short tempered or irritable (we all have our days), then it could be the other way around, and you might be the one flaunting this expression more than anyone.
J’en ai jusque-là, “I’ve had it up to here,” is an idiomatic expression to point out how high your patience mark is. To indicate where that patience mark is, this should be said while you have one of your hands raised right above your head, almost in a saluting gesture.
If you’re bubbling with frustration and close to spilling over the top, then this idiom is just about right for you. We hear it in English all the time, so it’s too easy to forget—no excuses!
J’en ai jusque-là ! Je ne supporte plus ton comportement ! (I’ve had it up to here! I’m sick of your (bad) behavior!)
Oui maman, désolé. (Yes mom, sorry.)
11. L’avocat du diable
“Devil’s advocate”—no, not talking about the movie here, although it’s an unforgettable film that might have revived this archaic expression—is actually a phrase that dates back to the Catholic Church during sainthood and canonization. L’avocat du diable, “the devil’s advocate,” translated the same way, is an infamous figure of speech used to portray a person who purposely plays a counterargument to another person’s belief. The goal is to promote the opposing view or bring out the initial argument’s lesser qualities.
If we want to get literal-literal, l’avocat du diable really means “the devil’s lawyer,” which gives more explanation to the defense position. A “devil’s advocate” is someone who advocates for a cause, and that person is labeled as l’avocat du diable. Here’s a case:
L’internet c’est une grandiose invention ! Où serions-nous sans lui ? (The Internet is a grandiose invention! Where would we be without it?)
Oui, mais ça doit cesser ! Toute l’énergie utilisée pour soutenir l’internet va détruire notre planète—je me fais juste l’avocat du diable ! (Yes, but it needs to stop! All the energy used for sustaining the Internet is going to destroy our planet—I’m just playing devil’s advocate!)
12. (Me) Passer sur le corps
Are you a political fighter? Protestor? How about stubborn? Won’t easily give in or give up? Are you a “devil’s advocate” that’ll let nothing stand in the way?
Well then, the expression passer sur le corps, “over my dead body,” fits you. This French and English idiom lets someone know “it’s not happening” and that they have to “go through you first” in order to get what they want, because you’re typically stronger at getting what you want, like sharpening those French skills!
Je vais dire autant de gros mots que je veux ! (I’m going to say as many bad words as I want!)
Non, il faudra me passer sur le corps d’abord ! (No, over my dead body first!).
13. Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour
Do you feel as if your French learning progress is taking forever? When you feel worried and restless, just remember, ça va ! Parce que Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour ! (It’s okay! Because “Rome wasn’t built in a day!”).
And like this incredible ancient city that continues to stand even today, your French learning process is a work of art. It won’t happen overnight or in a day. Great works of art take time and persistence. Think of Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo.
Those names ring a bell for all language leaners, and so should this idiom, because we say it in English too.
But who was the first to say it?
If you think it was a Roman, you’re wrong. They weren’t around long enough to marvel at their own wonder. Rather, it was one of their friendly neighbors, the French! Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour was first written in a book called Proverbe au vilain by a 12th century cleric from Alsace, France to defend why grand creations take time to produce, like those French learning skills! So keep working at it!
Tu parles très bien français. (You speak French very well.)
Oh là ! merci, mais Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour ! (Whoa! Thank you, but Rome wasn’t built in a day!)
And that’ll do it!
You’ve got your 13 unforgettable idioms to speak French with personality and style.
Get out there and start practicing!
Soon you’ll discover your true French self.
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