learn french phrases

11 French Phrases You’ve Gotta Learn to Impress Natives

Want to impress your French friends?

Dreaming of the day when you’ll truly surprise a language exchange partner with your français?

If you’ve got the accent down, then it’s time to start whipping out some French idioms and phrases to make this happen.

Much like in English, the French love using a good metaphor to describe a situation. So much so, that it can seem like there are more phrases to learn than verb endings!

But never fear—we’re going to walk you through eleven phrases that will leave you sounding leaps and bounds more like a native.

All you need is a little time, a pad of paper (or printer) and this list of French phrases. Pretty soon, you’ll be blowing away native speakers with your know-how.

11 French Phrases You’ve Gotta Learn to Impress Natives

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.

Example:

A: Pourquoi Jack disparut-il soudainement? (Why did Jack suddenly disappear?)

B: 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.

Example: 

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.

While 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. Used mainly to describe a sense of false modesty, 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.

Example:

A: Georges est si modeste. (Georges is so modest.)

B: 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 to something happening around them.

Example:

A: Le nouveau président est tout aussi mauvais que le dernier. (The new president is just as bad as the last.)

B: 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.

Example:

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 French horse riding culture, and was used to describe a horse galloping so quickly that its front and back legs were thrown out, 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.”

Example:

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’Ingresyou talk about a talent or hobby that you like to do in your spare time.

Example:

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.

Example:

A: Nous perdons du temps… (We are wasting time…)

B: 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.

Example:

A: Mon père a acheté une nouvelle moto. (My dad bought a new motorbike.)

B: 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.

Example:

A. Il est devenu complètement fou! (He’s gone completely mad!)

B. 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.

Example:

Ce mec, il souffre d’un amour fou; elle l’aime pas. (This guy suffers from a mad love; she doesn’t love him.)

Truly, 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 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.

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