26 Cool French Phrases You’ve Gotta Learn to Impress Natives
Dreaming of the day when you’ll truly surprise a language exchange partner with your français?
If you’ve got the accent down, it’s time to start whipping out French idioms and phrases to make this happen.
This blog post will walk you through 26 cool French phrases that will leave you sounding leaps and bounds more like a native.
- 1. L’Appel du vide
- 2. Mauvais quart d’heure
- 3. Mauvaise honte
- 4. Plus ça change…
- 5. Tant bien que mal
- 6. Ventre à terre
- 7. Violon d’Ingres
- 8. Revenons à nos moutons
- 9. Le démon du midi
- 10. Cherchez la femme
- 11. Amour fou
- 12. Passer comme une lettre à la poste
- 13. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
- 14. Ça ne casse pas des briques
- 15. Tiré par les cheveux
- 16. C’est la fin des haricots
- 17. Voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots
- 18. Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
- 19. Être sage comme une image
- 20. Quand les poules auront des dents
- 21. Dire tout et son contraire
- 22. Qui va à la chasse perd sa place
- 23. Ne pas faire long feu
- 24. Être de mauvais poil
- 25. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul
- 26. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu
1. L’Appel du vide
Literally: Call of the void
Meaning: A sudden urge to do wild or reckless things
This French saying has no literal translation in English, and while it is fairly easy to translate, it doesn’t mean exactly what it seems to. The phrase translates literally to “call of the void” and is commonly used to describe people who have a sudden inclination to do reckless and dangerous activities.
It is the appel du vide that causes people to jump off mountains or to swim out to sea, despite the deadly consequences. The saying has been likened to the mythological song of the sirens, which caused sailors to crash into the rocks.
— Pourquoi Jack disparut-il soudainement? (Why did Jack suddenly disappear?)
— C’était l’appel du vide. (It was the call of the void.)
2. Mauvais quart d’heure
Literally: Bad 15 minutes
Meaning: Brief, embarrassing experience
We’ve all been there: coat stuck in the metro door, tripping over our feet, greeting someone we have never actually met before. While the feelings of embarrassment can stay around for hours, the French have contracted the experience of embarrassment to a 15-minute interval.
A mauvais quart d’heure is a brief but demoralizing experience that will leave you feeling bashful. Saying that l’homme a passé un mauvais quart d’heure means that, briefly, something was very embarrassing for the man in question.
J’ai déchiré mon pantalon, brisé mon téléphone et perdu mes clés. C’était un mauvais quart d’heure!
(I ripped my trousers, broke my phone and lost my keys. It was an embarrassing experience!)
3. Mauvaise honte
Literally: Bad shame
Meaning: False modesty
In English, this phrase is used to literally mean “extreme shyness” but in French, the connotations are somewhat different. We all know one person who talks down their work in the hope that you will build it back up.
In France, mauvaise honte can be used in a negative way to describe someone who has a false sense of modesty, though it’s not always a bad thing. It can also be used to describe a quality that makes you do good things, out of a sort of shame. If used correctly, it can be commendable—but don’t always take this saying as a compliment.
— Georges est si modeste. (Georges is so modest.)
— Non, c’est une mauvaise honte. (No, it’s false modesty.)
4. Plus ça change…
Literally: The more things change…
Meaning: Things will never change
The full expression—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—is actually fairly common in France. Translating literally to “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” the saying can be used to describe a weary acceptance of the way things are.
You will often hear people just saying plus ça change under their breath and if that’s the case, they’re probably making a snide remark about something happening around them.
— Le nouveau président est tout aussi mauvais que le dernier. (The new president is just as bad as the last.)
— Plus ça change…. (The more things change…)
5. Tant bien que mal
Literally: As well as badly
Meaning: Anything partly or moderately successful; with some difficulty
Another saying which has no literal translation, tant bien que mal has been used in French since the 18th century. Similarly downbeat as previous sayings, the phrase is used to describe something that was carried out either partly or moderately successful.
This saying can be used also when people seem to be trying their best but are not necessarily reaping the rewards for their actions. If someone says that “J’y a réussi tant bien que mal,” it means you managed it with some difficulty and not necessarily with ringing success.
Aujourd’hui, six mois après cette terrible nouvelle, nous vivons tant bien que mal.
(Today, six months after this terrible news, we’re living as well as is possible.)
6. Ventre à terre
Literally: Belly to the ground
Meaning: Doing something full speed
Translating ventre à terre might seem obvious, and while it can be used to literally describe something with its belly to the ground, the idiomatic meaning is a little different. The French saying came from horse riding culture, and was used to describe a horse galloping so quickly that its front and back legs were both off the ground, leaving its belly directly above the ground.
Ventre à terre, therefore, can be used to describe doing something at full speed. You can say that someone moves at full speed by using the phrase “Il courait ventre à terre.”
Il était tellement rapide! Il courait ventre à terre.
(He was really fast! He ran belly to the ground.)
7. Violon d’Ingres
Literally: Ingres’s violin
Meaning: To have a hobby
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the celebrated 18th/19th century painter, was also an exceptionally talented violinist.
While he wasn’t creating impressive works of art, he could be found playing on his violin—which led writers to start referencing his second talent in their writing.
If you describe something as mon violon d’Ingres, you talk about a talent or hobby that you like to do in your spare time.
J’aime bien le bricolage. C’est mon violon d’Ingres.
(I like DIY, it’s my hobby).
8. Revenons à nos moutons
Literally: Return to our sheep
Meaning: Return to the matter at hand
If someone says in a French meeting that they must revenons à nos moutons, they are not saying entirely what it seems.
While wanting to “return to our sheep” might seem like an odd way to get to the point, the saying has been used figuratively for over 400 years to remind speakers to return to the matter at hand.
Taken from 15th century comedy “La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin,” the saying took little time to catch on and has been used ever since.
— Nous perdons du temps… (We are wasting time…)
— Oui, revenons à nos moutons et retournons au travail. (Yes, let’s return to the matter at hand and get back to work.)
9. Le démon du midi
Literally: The midday demon
Meaning: To have a midlife crisis
If someone you know wakes up at 50, grows a ponytail, puts on their leather trousers and buys a Harley, you would be forgiven for assuming they’re suffering from a demonic possession. In France, anyway.
Having a mid-life crisis is truly terrifying to the French, and if you’re suffering from the démon du midi, you’re in trouble.
— Mon père a acheté une nouvelle moto. (My dad bought a new motorbike.)
— Il a vraiment le démon du midi. (He’s really having a midlife crisis.)
10. Cherchez la femme
Literally: Look for the woman
Meaning: Find the woman to put right a man’s bad behavior
This saying is a little more complicated than it might seem, and is saved for very specific situations. If someone demands that you chercher la femme, it is normally because there is a man somewhere acting out of character and in order to stop it, you need to find the woman who is the cause.
While it’s unclear as to the origins of the phrase, it can be located in the 1894 Alexandre Dumas drama “Les Mohicans de Paris,” in which women are blamed for being at the heart of most troubles.
— Il est devenu complètement fou! (He’s gone completely mad!)
— Cherchez la femme… (Look for the woman…)
11. Amour fou
Literally: Insane love
Meaning: Uncontrollable passion
If stereotypes are anything to go by, anyone who moves to Paris suffers from amour fou; it is the city of love, after all. Translated literally as “insane love,” this saying describes a wild and uncontrollable passion that takes over when people fall in love.
Unlike other romantic sayings, however, an amour fou is normally a passion which has completely taken over the relationship and threatens to turn it into something unhealthy. From time to time, un amour fou can be one sided and if this is the case, then things tend to turn out very badly for one of the parties.
Ce mec, il souffre d’un amour fou; elle l’aime pas.
(This guy suffers from a mad love; she doesn’t love him.)
12. Passer comme une lettre à la poste
Literally: To go through like a letter in the mail
Meaning: An event that runs smoothly
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 refers 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.
(At customs, Malika went through without a problem.)
13. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
Literally: If youth knew, if age could
Meaning: Youth is wasted on the young
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.”)
14. Ça ne casse pas des briques
Literally: It doesn’t break bricks
Meaning: It’s nothing to write home about
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.
— 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.)
15. Tiré par les cheveux
Literally: Pulled by the hair
Meaning: It’s a stretch
Tiré par les cheveux is like the English expression “it’s a stretch,” which is used to describe something that’s 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.)
16. C’est la fin des haricots
Literally: It’s the end of the (green) beans
Meaning: There’s nothing left
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!)
17. Voir venir quelqu’un avec ses gros sabots
Literally: To see someone coming with his/her big clogs
Meaning: To be able to tell/see coming from a mile away
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!)
18. Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
Literally: It’s nothing to whip a cat about
Meaning: It’s no big deal
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.
19. Être sage comme une image
Literally: To be well-behaved like a picture
Meaning: To be good as gold
This expression is usually used with children to tell 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.”)
20. Quand les poules auront des dents
Literally: When chickens have teeth
Meaning: When pigs can fly
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!)
21. Dire tout et son contraire
Literally: To say all and its opposite
Meaning: To contradict onself
This phrase means someone is expressing contradictory viewpoints. It helps refer 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!)
22. Qui va à la chasse perd sa place
Literally: (He) who goes hunting loses his place
Meaning: Move your feet, lose your seat
This playful, commonly-used saying 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!)
23. Ne pas faire long feu
Literally: To not make a long fire
Meaning: (Something) doesn’t last long
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.)
24. Être de mauvais poil
Literally: To be of bad (stand of) hair
Meaning: To be in a bad mood
If someone is in a bad mood, you can say they’re est de mauvais poil.
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.)
25. Un malheur ne vient jamais seul
Literally: A misfortune never comes along
Meaning: When it rains, it pours
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.
(Michel lost his wallet and, because misfortunes never come singly, he had a car accident.)
26. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu
Literally: There’s no smoke without fire
Meaning: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
This phrase is used to say that there seems to be a hint of truth in every rumor.
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.)
The list of French sayings is endless and while these are a good introduction, you’ll find that there’s practically a specific phrase for every situation.
All you need to do now is find a French-speaking partner, strike up a conversation and talk away!
You can also practice these phrases (and learn more) by immersing yourself in French content, like with the authentic French videos on FluentU that help you learn the language in context.
You might be surprised by how easily you remember the sayings and your partner might be surprised by how easily you are adapting to French culture.