Ready to dress up your French?
Okay, so that definitely helps, but that’s not all it’s about.
Really getting a feel for the language requires stepping out of the classroom and incorporating French used by real people into your personal speaking arsenal.
However, while learning French words, concepts and shorter phrases can be helpful, there are also plenty of complete, ready-made sayings that are convenient and appropriate for dropping into everyday speech.
A lot of sayings like this have English equivalents (even if they’re not literal), and are easy to use at the right time if you have them at the ready.
So to get speaking like a native, here are 15 French sayings you can break out for multiple occasions!
One Size Fits All: 15 Fun French Sayings to Suit Many Occasions
1. Passer comme une lettre à la poste
The literal translation of this saying is “to go through like a letter in the mail.” Passer is an interesting verb because it can either mean “to pass” (as in “to go by”) or “to be accepted.”
In French, 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.
À la douane, Malika est passée comme une lettre à la poste, mais moi, j’ai été retenu(e) pendant plus d’une heure.
(At customs, Malika went through without a problem, but I was held for more than one hour.)
2. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
This saying is a French equivalent of “youth is wasted on the young.” Its literal translation is “if youth knew, if age could.” How’s that for a bit of the imparfait for ya?
Eleanor se plaignait sans cesse qu’elle n’aimait pas ses jambes et sa grand-mère lui disait toujours en soupirant : « Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait » .
(Eleanor constantly complained that she didn’t like her legs and her grandmother would always say with a sigh, “Youth is wasted on the young.”)
3. Ça ne casse pas des briques
Literally, “it doesn’t break bricks.” 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. Basically, it’s the French version of “it’s nothing to write home about.”
— Qu’est-ce que tu as pensé du film hier ? (What did you think of the movie yesterday?)
— Eh, ben, ça ne casse pas des briques. (Well, it’s nothing to write home about.)
4. Tiré par les cheveux
Tiré par les cheveux, which literally means, “pulled by the hair,” has its English equivalent in the expression “it’s a stretch,” which is to say, far-fetched.
Nathalie a parlé avec conviction mais je trouve que ses explications sont tirées par les cheveux.
(Nathalie spoke with conviction but I thought her explanations were far-fetched.)
5. C’est la fin des haricots
C’est la fin des haricots, which dates back to the 18th century, literally means “it’s the end of the (green) beans.”
Nowadays, it’s synonymous with il n’y a plus rien ! (there’s nothing left!).
Avec la crise, c’est la fin des haricots !
(With the [financial] crisis going on, times are tough!)
6. Voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots
Literally “to see someone coming with his/her big clogs,” voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots means to be able to clearly and easily decipher someone’s intentions. 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.”
Je te vois venir avec tes gros sabots ! Tu vas me demander de l’argent !
(I can tell from a mile away that you’re going to ask me for money!)
7. Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat literally means “it’s nothing to whip a cat about.” 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.
Ne t’énerve pas, Bastien, il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat.
(Don’t get worked up, Bastien, it’s no big deal!)
Note: No cats were harmed in the writing of this sentence.
8. Être sage comme une image
This literally translates to “to be well-behaved like a picture.” In English, an equivalent saying is “to be good as gold.” This expression is usually used with children as a way of telling them to be on their best behavior.
Quand elles sont arrivées au musée, Marceline a dit à sa fille : « Sois sage comme une image » .
(When they arrived at the museum, Marceline said to her daughter, “Be good as gold.”)
9. Quand les poules auront des dents
Literally translating to “when chickens have teeth,” quand les poules auront des dents is the French equivalent of the English expression “when pigs can fly.” It’s a sarcastic or ironic way of saying jamais (never).
— Quand est-ce que tu t’excuseras auprès de Johan ? (When will you apologize to Johan?)
— Quand les poules auront des dents ! (Never!)
10. Dire tout et son contraire
This literally translates as “to say all and its opposite.” It means to express contradictory viewpoints. This is an expression that’s useful for referring to that person who always says “I told you so!” but may have actually done the opposite. You know who I’m talking about.
Bien sûr qu’elle a raison ! Elle dit tout et son contraire !
(Of course she’s right! She’s saying contradictory things!)
11. Qui va à la chasse perd sa place
Who doesn’t love a saying that rhymes? The literal translation of this expression is, “(he) who goes hunting loses his place.” Qui va à la chasse perd sa place is a playful, commonly-used saying that conveys the fact that you should expect your place to be taken if you move away from it. 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.
— C’était ma place ! J’étais parti(e) quelques instants aux toilettes. (That was my spot! I left for a bit to go to the bathroom.)
— Qui va à la chasse perd sa place. Tant pis pour toi ! (Move your feet, lose your seat. Too bad for you!)
12. Ne pas faire long feu
Literally meaning “to not make a long fire,” ne pas faire long feu can be used to talk about anything that doesn’t last a long time.
Je pensais passer tout l’été ici, mais vu que tout coûte super cher, je ne vais pas faire long feu ici.
(I thought I’d spend the whole summer here, but since everything is so expensive, I don’t think I’ll stay as long.)
13. Être de mauvais poil
Literally, être de mauvais poil translates to “to be of bad (strand of) hair.” Figuratively, it means “to be in a bad mood.”
Élise est fatiguée et de mauvais poil ; hier elle a fait une nuit blanche.
(Élise is tired and in a bad mood; yesterday she pulled an all-nighter.)
14. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul
Literally “a misfortune never comes alone,” un malheur ne vient jamais seul refers to the fact that when one bad thing happens, a series of other misfortunes seem to pile up on top of it. In English we say, “misfortunes never come singly” or “when it rains, it pours.”
Michel a perdu son portefeuille et, comme un malheur ne vient jamais seul, il a eu un accident de voiture en revenant chez lui.
(Michel lost his wallet and, because misfortunes never come singly, he had a car accident when he was coming home.)
15. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu
This literally means “there’s no smoke without fire.” In English, the saying goes, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” It means that in every rumor there seems to be a hint of truth.
Vu la vie que Jacques mène, il doit être coupable. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu.
(Given the life that Jacques leads, he must be guilty. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.)
For practice, try incorporating these sayings into your lingo.
Over time, you’ll find they roll off your tongue.
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).
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