french idioms

15 French Idioms You Should Know But Don’t

So you’re in a French bar.

You hear a fellow drinker talking about drinking like a hole… another is talking about having a fat morning, and someone broke sugar cubes on someone’s back.

You scratch your head and wonder why you’re lost even though you can translate the words.

Well, you’ve just had your first introduction to French idioms.

Contents

Why Learn French Idioms?

You could go without learning French idioms, but who wants to sound like a middle school textbook when they make everyday conversation?

Imagine being a student about to go on exchange to France. You want to make the most of your experience – meet new friends, have interesting conversations, and maybe even meet a special someone.

But it’s hard to make a connection when you sound formal and awkward. Knowing common French idioms and expressions can help you connect on a deeper level with native French speakers.

My Favorite French Idioms

So without further ado, here’s a list of French idioms to help you sound fluent (and maybe even funny).

1. Coûter les yeux de la tête

Coûter les yeux de la tête literally means that something costs the eyes in your head – it’s a price that’s unreasonable. The English equivalent is ‘to cost an arm and a leg’. Here’s an example:

J’aurais aimé acheter un nouvel ordi mais ça coûte les yeux de la tête.

I would have liked to buy a new computer but it costs an arm and a leg.

2. Boire comme un trou

Boire comme un trou literally means to drink like a hole. When you say that someone drinks like a hole, it means that they never stop, even if they should. This expression has a small hint of judgment, so be careful about when you use it. Here’s an example:

“Astrid a remarqué que Charles a bu deux bouteilles de vin hier soir. “

“Mon Dieu, il buvait comme un trou.”

“Astrid noticed that Charles drank two bottles of wine last night.”

“Oh my God, he was drinking like a fish. “

3. Ne rien savoir faire de ses dix doigts.

Ne rien savoir faire de ses dix doigts literally means not knowing how to do anything with one’s ten fingers. It means that somebody is completely useless. Here’s an example:

Laisse tomber, il ne sait rien faire de ses dix doigts, celui-là.

Forget about it, that guy is completely useless.

4. Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe

Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe literally means to arrive like the hair in a soup. It refers to entering a situation at the most awkward moment possible. Here’s an example:

Julien et Arnaud se disputaient quand je suis arrivée – comme un cheveu sur la soupe.  

Julien and Arnaud were in the middle of a fight when I got there – at the most awkward moment.

5. Mettre son grain de sel.

Mettre son grain de sel literally means to put in one’s grain of salt – to give someone an unsolicited and unnecessary opinion. Case in point, your mom offering you advice and feedback on your love life (or lack thereof). Here’s an example:

Encore une fois, elle a mis son grain de sel.

Once again, she offered an unsolicited opinion.

6. Faire la grasse matinée

Faire la grasse matinée literally means to have a fat morning. Sounds delicious, no? It actually means to sleep in – but if you’re going to sleep in, you might as well enjoy a fantastic brunch afterwards! Here’s an example:

J’ai trop bu hier soir, alors aujourd’hui, j’ai fait la grasse matinée.

I drank too much last night, so today I slept in.

7. C’est dommage

C’est dommage literally translates to ‘that’s a shame’. Imagine someone looking at a small-scale disaster and sharply exhaling in sympathy – the expression also translates to ‘that’s too bad’. Here’s an example:

C’est dommage que tu ne sois pas au courant.  

It’s too bad you’re not up to speed.

8. Coup de foudre

Coup de foudre literally translates to a strike of lightning. In fact, it refers to love at first sight – one of those moments where you see a special someone, and can’t help but react immediately. Here’s an example:

Quand je t’ai vu pour la première fois, c’était le coup de foudre.

The first time I saw you, I fell head over heals.

9. Appeler un chat un chat

Appeler un chat un chat literally translates to calling a cat a cat. It’s the equivalent of telling it like it is, or calling a spade a spade in English. When you call a spade a spade, you simply see the ugly truth, and put it very bluntly. Here’s an example:

“Attends, tu veux vraiment dire qu’il est stupide?!”

“Écoute, il faut appeler un chat un chat.”

“Wait, do you actually think he’s stupid?!”

“Listen, I’m just telling it like it is.”

10. Je dis ça, je dis rien.

Je dis ça, je dis rien literally means “I say that, I say nothing.” Its English counterpart is “just saying.” You would use this expression when giving your opinion but wanting to soften the blow a bit, or not assume total responsibility for it. It also has its own Twitter hashtag: #JDCJDR! Use with caution, since it’s rather passive-aggressive. Here’s an example:

Si on ne part pas maintenant, on n’arrivera pas au spectacle à l’heure. Enfin, je dis ça, je dis rien.

If we don’t leave now, we won’t get to the show on time. Just saying…

11. Poser un lapin à quelqu’un

Poser un lapin à quelqu’un literally means ‘to put a rabbit on somebody’. The French expression sounds as silly as its English equivalent – to stand somebody up, or to not show up for something that you’ve planned. Here’s an example:

Je l’ai attendue mais elle n’est jamais arrivée – elle m’a posé un lapin!

I waited for  her but she never came – she stood me up!

12. Ça marche!

Ça marche literally means “that works.” Marcher is an interesting verb because it means both “to walk” and “to function/to work,” so it is not always transparent for English speakers.  You’ll use this expression much in the same way as its English equivalent. If you and some friends are making some plans, you’ll say ça marche to confirm that you’re on board. Note that this expression changes from region to region. In Switzerland, for example, people say ça joue: that plays! Here’s an example:

“On se retrouve à midi pour déjeuner?”

“Oui, ça marche!”

“Let’s meet at noon for lunch?”

“Yes, that works!”

13. Sauter du coq à l’âne

Sauter du coq à l’âne literally means to jump from the rooster to the donkey – or to jump from topic to topic in conversation. You can use it to describe somebody who is difficult to follow in conversation, or use it as a signal that you’re aware that you’re completely changing subjects, but you’re going to do it anyway. Here’s an example:

Et, je saute du coq à l’âne mais…

And, this is completely unrelated but…

 14. Être à l’ouest

Être à l’ouest literally translates to ‘being in the West’. It refers to being completely crazy or out of it. Here’s an example:

Comme j’avais mal dormi, j’étais complètement à l’ouest toute la journée.

Since I had slept poorly, I was out of it for the whole day.

15. La moutarde me/lui monte au nez

La moutarde me monte au nez literally translates to ‘the mustard is getting to my nose’ – it means that I’m getting angry (not sneezy, which would also seem like a possibility in this instance).

“Quand elle se fait taquiner, on peut voir que la moutarde lui monte au nez!”

“When she gets teased, you can see her getting angry!”

 

That’s all for now, I’m sure you’ll be sounding like a local in no time!

But of course, the thing about idioms is they can be confusing or hard to remember, since you can’t usually understand them from the individual words alone. 

You need to learn them in reinforce what you’ve just learned in context: by speaking with native speakers, and reading or watching authentic content. That said, finding native speakers to talk to is often a challenge for language learners, and it can be hard to weed out proper authentic content online.

If you want authentic content that has been vetted by experts and native French speakers, try immersion-based language learning programs.

For example, FluentU has thousands of bite-sized videos where you can hear all these great French idioms in context. The videos have interactive subtitles and a full transcript in English and French, so they’re easy to spot and you can see exactly how native speakers use them. You can also make personalized flashcards to help you memorize new phrases, and follow those up with a personalized quiz to test your understanding.  

Hope you found this post on French idioms useful, good luck!

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