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62 Common French Sayings

Want to astound native speakers with your deep understanding of French?

Along with French slang, French idioms and French quotes, using popular French sayings in conversation is one of the fastest ways to show off your expertise!

These 62 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

The vestment does not make the monk

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

It is better to prevent than to heal

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

Little by little, the bird makes its nest

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

Who runs after two hares at the same time, catches none

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

After the rain, good weather

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

No one is as deaf as the one who does not want to listen

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

It doesn't break bricks

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

It's the end of the green beans

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

To see someone coming with his/her big clogs

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

It’s nothing to whip a cat about

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

To be well-behaved like a picture

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

Woman sitting on her couch in a bad mood

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

All suffering merits salary

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  

To not make a long fire

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

There's no smoke without fire

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.”

44. C’est simple comme bonjour

Literal translation: It’s simple as hello

Meaning: It’s a piece of cake/easy peasy

Usage: You can use this saying to describe something that’s easy or comes naturally to you. 

45. Non, mais allô quoi?

Literal translation: No, but hello, you know?

Meaning: Are you serious? 

Usage: This famous line by French reality star Nabilla has become a cult classic among the youth of France, and is used as a remark of disbelief about something. 

46. Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier


Literal translation: To have the wit of the staircase

Meaning: To be unable to think of a witty comeback in time

Usage: The French use this saying when someone comes up with a retort or a comeback after the fact, when it’s too late to use it. Don’t you hate when that happens? 

47. Connaître la musique

Literal translation: To know the music

Meaning: To know the score

Usage: This phrase is used when you’ve done something so often that you know exactly how it goes. It indicates that you’re familiar with something, whether it’s a routine, a person, a feeling or an event.

48. N’importe quoi

Literal translation: No matter what

Meaning: This phrase can be used to mean “anything,” “whatever,” “nonsense,” or something a bit stronger like “bullsh*t.”

Usage: The French use this expression to suggest that what someone else has said in an argument or disagreement is nonsense or b.s.

49. Un mauvais quart d’heure


Literal translation: A bad 15 minutes

Meaning: A brief, embarrassing experience

Usage: This saying refers to an embarrassing (but relatable) experience like tripping over your feet or forgetting someone’s name. 

50. Bref

Literal translation: Brief/short

Meaning: In short or “yada yada” 

Usage: This word is used when someone’s trying to cut a long story short and summarize a situation or provide information quickly. 

51. Amour fou

Literal translation: Insane love

Meaning: Uncontrollable passion

Usage: This saying describes a wild and uncontrollable passion that takes over when people fall in love. It’s normally a passion that has completely taken over the relationship and threatens to turn it into something unhealthy, especially if it’s one-sided. 

52. Occupe-toi de tes oignons


Literal translation: Occupy yourself with your onions.

Meaning: Mind your own business. 

Usage: You can also tell someone “C’est pas tes oignons” which translates to “It’s not your onions” and means “It’s none of your business.” 

53. L’Appel du vide

Literal translation: Call of the void

Meaning: A sudden urge to do wild or reckless things

Usage: This saying describes the sudden inclination to do reckless and dangerous activities like jumping off a mountain despite the deadly consequences. It’s been likened to the mythological song of the sirens, which caused sailors to crash into the rocks.

54. Mauvaise honte

Literal translation: Bad shame

Meaning: False modesty

 Usage: This phrase can refer to a false sense of modesty, or it can describe a quality that makes you do good things, out of a sort of shame or guilt. If used correctly, it can be commendable—but don’t always take it as a compliment.

55. Ventre à terre


Literal translation: Belly to the ground

Meaning: This saying comes from horse riding culture, referring to a horse galloping so quickly that its front and back legs are both off the ground, leaving its belly directly above the ground. 

Usage: You can use this phrase to say that someone is doing something at full speed or really quickly.

56. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Literal translation: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meaning: Things will never change. 

Usage: This saying expresses a weary acceptance of the way things are. You’ll often hear people just saying plus ça change in response to something or as an under-their-breath remark about something happening around them.

57. Tant bien que mal

Literal translation: As well as badly

Meaning: As best as one could/with difficulty 

Usage: This phrase is used to describe something that was carried out either partly or moderately successfully and usually with difficulty, or as best as one could.

58. Violon d’Ingres


Literal translation: Ingres’s violin

Meaning: A hobby

Usage: C’est mon violon d’Ingres means “It’s my hobby.” This saying refers to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the celebrated 18th/19th-century painter who was also an exceptionally talented violinist. While he wasn’t creating impressive works of art, he could be found playing on his violin.

59. Le démon du midi

Literal translation: The midday demon

Meaning: To have a midlife crisis

Usage: This saying is used especially for situations in which someone leaves their spouse for another (often much younger) person.

60. Cherchez la femme

Literal translation: Look for the woman

Meaning: The cause of the situation/problem must be a woman

Usage: This is a sexist saying that comes from the 1894 Alexandre Dumas drama “Les Mohicans de Paris,” in which women are blamed for being at the heart of most troubles. It’s used to insinuate that there must be a woman (a mistress, an angry wife, etc.) who’s at the root of whatever problem is being discussed. 

61. Revenons à nos moutons


Literal translation: Let’s return to our sheep.

Meaning: Let’s return to the matter at hand/get back on topic.

Usage: If someone says in a French meeting that they must revenons à nos moutons, it’s a reminder to get back to the matter at hand. This saying comes from the 15th-century comedy “La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin.” 

62. On n’est pas sorti de l’auberge

Literal translation: We haven’t left the hostel

Meaning: We’re not out of the woods yet

Usage: This saying is used when some progress has been made or an issue has been partially, but not completely, resolved. 


Any of these sayings can help refine and give flair to your use of the French language!

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Since these 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).

And one more thing...

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