40+ French Sayings to Add Color to Any Conversation
Want to astound native speakers with your deep understanding of French?
Along with French slang and French idioms, using popular French sayings in conversation is one of the fastest ways to show off your expertise!
These 43 colorful and time-tested expressions are filled with both imagery and wisdom, and can be used in all sorts of everyday situations.
- 1. L’habit ne fait pas le moine
- 2. Qui vivra verra
- 3. Chacun voit midi à sa porte
- 4. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir
- 5. Qui n’avance pas, recule
- 6. Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences
- 7. Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid
- 8. Aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait
- 9. Bien mal acquis ne profite jamais
- 10. Qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun
- 11. Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup
- 12. À jeune chasseur, il faut un vieux chien
- 13. Après la pluie, le beau temps
- 14. Quand on a pas ce que l’on aime, il faut aimer ce que l’on a
- 15. Bien faire et laisser dire
- 16. Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre
- 17. Passer comme une lettre à la poste
- 18. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
- 19. Ça ne casse pas des briques
- 20. Tiré par les cheveux
- 21. La nuit porte conseil
- 22. C’est la fin des haricots
- 23. Battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud
- 24. Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée
- 25. Voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots
- 26. Il ne faut rien laisser au hasard
- 27. Les murs ont des oreilles
- 28. Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
- 29. Tout est bien qui finit bien
- 30. Les bons comptes font les bons amis
- 31. Être sage comme une image
- 32. La jeunesse est le temps d’étudier la sagesse, la vieillesse est le temps de la pratiquer
- 33. Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point
- 34. Être de mauvais poil
- 35. Quand les poules auront des dents
- 36. Qui va à la chasse perd sa place
- 37. Toute peine mérite salaire
- 38. Dire tout et son contraire
- 39. La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure
- 40. Ne pas faire long feu
- 41. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul
- 42. Vouloir, c’est pouvoir
- 43. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu
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1. L’habit ne fait pas le moine
Literal translation: The vestment does not make the monk.
Meaning: Just because a monk is wearing a renunciate’s robe, it doesn’t mean that the monk is sincere in his intentions.
Usage: The phrase implies that appearances can sometimes mislead one’s better judgment. The English equivalent would be, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
2. Qui vivra verra
Literal translation: He/she who lives, shall see.
Meaning: Something is unknown now, but will become clear in the future; the only way to find out is to wait and see.
Usage: Typically used when an outcome is unpredictable or uncertain, like in the English phrase, “The future will tell.”
3. Chacun voit midi à sa porte
Literal translation: Each person sees noon at his/her door.
Meaning: Each person prioritizes their own interests, and their unique perspective on life guides how they interact with others, set goals, work and live. 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 their self-interest reigns supreme.
4. Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir
Literal translation: It’s better to prevent than to heal.
Meaning: It’s better to take the necessary precautions to prevent a sickness, than to have to treat and heal this sickness.
Usage: This is another widely used proverb, understood by all French natives. The French are very attached to this saying, which isn’t surprising, since they tend to view health as a top priority—“Et d’abord, ne pas nuire !” (First, do no harm!).
5. Qui n’avance pas, recule
Literal translation: Who does not move forward, recedes.
Meaning: There can be no standstill in life, only evolution or devolution. You can either adapt, or become stagnant and “recede.”
Usage: This proverb can be used as encouragement in the need to persevere. It may be persistently employed, given its truth content. “Expect poison from the standing water,” the English poet William Blake once wrote.
6. 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 them. In short: “Don’t make assumptions.”
Usage: This saying is most commonly used to refer to people whose appearance seems to be en décalage (mismatched) with their profession.
7. Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid
Literal translation: Little by little, the bird makes its nest.
Meaning: This proverb designates patience and perseverance.
Usage: It can be used in many situations, particularly to refer to something substantial that has not yet been accomplished, but will be with time and perseverance.
8. Aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait
Literal translation: As soon as said, as soon as done.
Meaning: The equivalent English 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 a favor.
9. 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.
10. Qui court deux lièvres à la fois, n’en prend aucun
Literal translation: Who runs after two hares at the same time, catches none.
Meaning: We ought to concentrate on one task at a time with optimal attention, as doing two things at once makes it more likely for each result to be unsatisfactory.
Usage: This proverb offers an important reminder not to let ambition turn into greed, so it can be wisely applied to many situations.
11. 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—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. It also works in the informal tu register. Live in the present!
12. 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 their apprentice or used by the apprentice themselves. In the latter case, it is usually a compliment and a display of respect.
13. 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.
14. Quand on a pas ce que l’on aime, il faut aimer ce que l’on a
Literal translation: When one doesn’t have the things that one loves, one must love what one has.
Meaning: It reflects the saying, “Want what you have and you’ll have what you want,” highlighting the value of being content with the way things are now. Avoiding the burden of wanting what’s out of reach can help us become grateful for the things we do have.
Usage: If you use this beautifully worded, yet sensible proverb at the appropriate time, the French will surely be intrigued by your wisdom.
15. Bien faire et laisser dire
Literal translation: Do well and let (them) speak.
Meaning: Do what you believe 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 or morally- or politically-charged situations to tell someone to do what they believe in, regardless of disapproval from naysayers or critics. You do you!
16. Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre
Literal translation: No one is as deaf as the one who does not want to listen.
Meaning: People who are too stubborn or caught up in their own self-assertions pay no attention to others’ advice or opinions.
Usage: This is a proverb qui court les rues (that runs the streets, meaning it’s widely used). In Paris, debating is almost a sport. When a debate leads nowhere because of each side’s tenacity, this saying is likely to be used by either party (if both believe they are right).
17. Passer comme une lettre à la poste
Literal translation: To go through like a letter in the mail.
Meaning: Passer is an interesting verb because it can either mean “to pass” (as in “to go by”) or “to be accepted.”
Usage: Passer comme une lettre à la poste is used to refer to something, usually an event, that’s easy, runs smoothly and is hassle-free.
18. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
Literal translation: If youth knew, if age could.
Meaning: This saying is a French equivalent of “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Usage: You can use this phrase whenever young people are taking the advantages of their youth for granted.
19. Ça ne casse pas des briques
Literal translation: It doesn’t break bricks.
Meaning: Basically, this is the French version of “It’s nothing to write home about.”
Usage: This is a casual way of referring to something you weren’t impressed by, like that new television series that you fell asleep watching on the couch or that cheesy rom com you saw on the plane on the way to France.
20. Tiré par les cheveux
Literal translation: Pulled by the hair.
Meaning: This phrase means that something is “far-fetched” or unlikely.
Usage: The equivalent English expression is, “It’s a stretch.”
21. La nuit porte conseil
Literal translation: The night brings advice.
Meaning: This saying is the equivalent of the English saying “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.
22. C’est la fin des haricots
Literal translation: It’s the end of the (green) beans.
Meaning: Nowadays, it’s synonymous with Il n’y a plus rien ! (“There’s nothing left!”).
Usage: This saying dates back to the 18th century and is a way of expressing despair over economic troubles, much like the English phrase, “Times are tough.”
23. Battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud
Literal translation: Strike the iron while it’s hot.
Meaning: This common saying, which is the same in English and French, means to take advantage of favorable conditions. It refers to a blacksmith forging iron, which requires that the metal be red-hot before its shape can be changed through a series of hammer strikes.
Usage: Use this saying when you’ve got a good momentum going and should continue to do whatever you’re doing.
24. 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 those who want to “have his/her cake and eat it, too” (because they’re having trouble choosing between two good options).
25. Voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots
Literal translation: To see someone coming with his/her big clogs.
Meaning: To be able to clearly and easily decipher someone’s intentions.
Usage: The subtext is that this “someone” lacks subtlety and/or tact. The English equivalent of this saying is “to see something coming from a mile away.”
26. Il ne faut rien laisser au hasard
Literal translation: One should leave nothing to chance.
Meaning: This one simply 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.
27. Les murs ont des oreilles
Literal translation: The walls have ears.
Meaning: One should pay attention to what they say, because there’s a chance they could be overheard (and have their words used against them).
Usage: This saying is used to urge one’s interlocutor to be discreet when discussing personal matters.
28. Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
Literal translation: It’s nothing to whip a cat about.
Meaning: It’s a lively way of saying, C’est pas grave ! (It’s no big deal!)—in other words, there’s nothing to make a fuss about.
Usage: You can use this expression to reassure people not to worry about something that might have seemed like a large issue.
29. 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 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.
30. 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.”
31. Être sage comme une image
Literal translation: To be well-behaved like a picture.
Meaning: In English, an equivalent saying is “to be good as gold.”
Usage: This expression is usually used with children as a way of telling them to be on their best behavior.
32. 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. It means that nothing should be taken for granted, 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.
33. 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.
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.
34. Être de mauvais poil
Literal translation: To be of bad (strand of) hair.
Meaning: To be in a bad mood.
Usage: Use this phrase to express general discomfort and malaise.
35. Quand les poules auront des dents
Literal translation: When chickens have teeth.
Meaning: This is the French equivalent of the English expression, “When pigs can fly.”
Usage: It’s a sarcastic or ironic way of saying jamais (never).
36. Qui va à la chasse perd sa place
Literal translation: (He) who goes hunting loses his place.
Meaning: This playful, commonly-used saying conveys the fact that you should expect your place to be taken if you move away from it.
Usage: This one doesn’t have a very popular English equivalent, but the saying “Move your feet, lose your seat” gets the same general idea across.
37. 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.
38. Dire tout et son contraire
Literal translation: To say all and its opposite.
Meaning: To express contradictory viewpoints.
Usage: This expression is useful for referring to that person who always says “I told you so!” but may have actually done the opposite.
39. La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure
Literal translation: The reasoning of the strongest is always the best.
Meaning: In “Le loup et l’agneau” (“The Wolf and the Lamb”), from “Fables de la Fontaine” (La Fontaine’s Fables), a wolf comes up with increasingly improbable reasons to justify eating a lamb for dinner. Before dying, the lamb says, La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure. It refers to people who always make excuses for their wrongdoings.
Usage: This saying is used to express dismay at all kinds of injustice, particularly when there’s a large power differential between opposing forces.
40. Ne pas faire long feu
Literal translation: To not make a long fire.
Meaning: Making a long fire means something will take a long time, so choosing not to make one implies that little time will be needed.
Usage: This expression can be used to talk about anything that isn’t expected to last very long.
41. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul
Literal translation: A misfortune never comes alone.
Meaning: When one bad thing happens, a series of other misfortunes seem to pile up on top of it.
Usage: In English we say, “Misfortunes never come singly” or “When it rains, it pours.”
42. 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!
43. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu
Literal translation: There’s no smoke without fire.
Meaning: In every rumor, there seems to be a hint of truth.
Usage: The English version of this saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Any of these sayings can help refine and give flair to your use of the French language!
To make sure they stay in your repertoire intellectuel (intellectual repertoire), it’s helpful to hear and read French expressions being used in different media. To do this you could check out videos on YouTube, or even use immersion programs like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic French TV shows, movies, news segments and other video clips, then adds interactive captioning to clarify how to use each term.
Whenever you want to learn more about a French word or saying, you can hover over it in the subtitles to see its meaning. Clicking on the term will give you further examples in context and share other videos that use it the same way.
The program is also available as an iOS and Android app, so you can study on the go.
Since these 43 expressions can be applied in so many different ways, you may find many opportunities to slip one into casual conversation. Practicing until you understand the nuances of these popular, flexible sayings is a great way to quickly impress a French native.
It’s all about being patient!
As the French say, petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid (little by little, the bird makes its nest).
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)