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12 French Sayings You Need to Know to Sound Like a Local

French is the second most studied language in the world, but how can you make yourself stand out from the millions of other French learners? In order to fit in with the locals, rather than sounding like a tourist, you need to use and understand some common French sayings.

French people use expressions every day without even realizing, so when a Frenchman says “the cow!” you need to know if it’s an idiom or if he’s just an idiot.

Let’s start with some funny French sayings…

La vache !”

Vocabulary list

  • la vache: the cow

Meaning

This phrase literally translates as “the cow!”, although it is actually just an exclamation similar to “Oh wow!” or “Oh my god!”. It can be positive, negative or neither, and it is used to express shock, surprise, admiration or disappointment. It might sound odd, but this funny French saying is used often by native speakers. Several English interjections share the same meaning, but a very similar equivalent is “holy cow”.

Example:

“Il m’a offert un bague en diamant.”
“Oh la vache !”

Literal Translation:

“He gave me a diamond ring.”
“The cow!”

What it means:

“He gave me a diamond ring.”
“Oh wow!”

Les doigts dans le nez”

Vocabulary list

  • les doigts: fingers
  • dans: in
  • le nez: nose

Meaning

This is an extremely common French saying and one that French people often say in English, thinking that it works in both languages, which leaves many Anglophones feeling puzzled.

With most French phrases, context can help you to understand the meaning. However, when somebody says “fingers in the nose!” and simultaneously sticks their fingers up their nose (or at least pretends to), context might not help. You’ll probably end up frozen in bewilderment. That’s why you need to know this popular French saying.

Borrowed from the world of horse racing, a race might be so easy for the winning jockey that they can do it with their fingers in their nose. A piece of cake! We could also say “les yeux fermés” (with one’s eyes closed).

Example:

“J’ai passé mon permis les doigts dans le nez.”

Literal translation:

“I did my driving test with fingers in the nose.”

What it means:

“My driving test was a piece of cake.”

While the French aren’t known for their passionate outbursts, they do have many expressions about breaking things…

Casser les oreilles”

Vocabulary list

  • casser: to break
  • les oreilles: ears

Note: The verb casser should be conjugated and this sentence should be aimed at somebody or something.

Meaning

This one is quite obvious, really. It literally translates as to break ears which means that somebody (or something) is making too much noise. The English equivalents are “to make a racket” and “to make one’s ears bleed”.

Example:

“Arrête de crier, tu me casses les oreilles !”

Literal translation:

“Stop shouting, you’re breaking my ears.”

What it means:

“Stop shouting, you’re making a racket!”

While you’re breaking someone’s ears, you can also break their feet…

Casser les pieds (à quelqu’un)”

Vocabulary list

  • casser: to break
  • les pieds: feet

Meaning

Another funny French saying that breaks a body part, but this time our feet are in the firing line. The English equivalent of breaking somebody’s feet has nothing to do with standing on their foot or stubbing your toe as one might think. It actually means to get on somebody’s nerves.

Example:

“Les enfants me cassent les pieds à se disputer tout le temps.”

Literal translation:

“The children break my feet, arguing all the time.”

What it means:

“The children are getting on my nerves, arguing all the time.”

When learning a language, it’s important to be able to express how you feel. In order to do so, you will need to know the most common French sayings about your mood:

Avoir le cafard”

Vocabulary list

  • avoir: to have
  • le cafard: the cockroach

Note: don’t forget to conjugate the verb “avoir. It’s one of the most commonly used verbs and is used in many French expressions too.

Meaning

Are you down in the dumps, feeling blue, a bit upset, or feeling down? Then you need to say that you have the cockroach.

Example:

”Je n’ai pas envie de sortir, j’ai le cafard depuis que j’ai perdu mon travail.”

Literal translation:

“I don’t want to go out tonight, I have the cockroach since I lost my job.”

What it means:

“I don’t want to go out tonight, I’ve been down in the dumps since I lost my job.”

Avoir la pêche” / “Avoir la patate”

Vocabulary list

  • avoir: to have
  • la pêche: the peach
  • la patate: the potato

Note: The correct way to say potato is pomme de terre, but patate is commonly used too.

Meaning

We wouldn’t use peaches and potatoes interchangeably in the kitchen, but we can in this French idiom. These are two separate French sayings that mean the same thing, so you only need to use one at a time. To have the peach or to have the potato means that you’re feeling great, excited or energetic, similarly we could say someone is on fire, full of beans, or in high spirits.

Example 1:

“Il a la pêche ce matin !”

Literal translation:

“He’s got the peach this morning!”

What it means:

“He’s in high spirits this morning!”

Example 2:

“Allons au bar, j’ai la patate !”

Literal translation:

“Let’s go to the bar, I’ve got the potato!”

What it means:

“Let’s go to the bar, I’m all fired up!”

Être chaud”

Vocabulary list

  • être: to be
  • chaud: hot

Meaning

Hot and cold are two of the first words we learn in a foreign language, especially for Brits who love talking about the weather. But why are people constantly saying that they’re hot, even in midwinter? And saying it so incorrectly too!

Je suis chaud means I am hot, however, to talk about our temperature in French we say j’ai chaud (“I have hot”) using the verb avoir. If a Francophone uses the verb être then the meaning changes entirely. A person who is hot to do something is keen, and really wants to participate. The English equivalent is to be “down” or “up” for something. The verb être is a tricky one, but it’s also one of the most important verbs that you need to know when learning French. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be able to use this expression with ease, and sound just like a local.

Example:

“Qui veut aller au cinéma samedi soir ?”
“Je suis chaud.”

Literal translation:

“Who wants to go to the cinema on Saturday evening?”
“I am hot.”

What it means:

“Who wants to go to the cinema on Saturday evening?”
“I’m up for it.”

The French are famous for gastronomy, so why not up your language game and learn some funny French sayings about food?

Raconter des salades”

Vocabulary list

  • raconter: to tell
  • salades: salad leaves

Note: “salade” can be both a literal translation meaning a salad and it can also be a false friend, like in this expression, where it refers only to the salad leaves (such as lettuce) rather than a whole bowl of salad.

Meaning

Are you telling lettuce?

In Cockney rhyming slang you would be telling pork pies, also known as spinning yarns in the US, and telling fibs in the UK. These are all expressions to say that somebody is telling lies.

Example:

“N’écoute pas ta soeur, elle raconte des salades.”

Literal translation:

“Don’t listen to your sister, she’s telling salad leaves.”

What it means:

“Don’t listen to your sister, she’s fibbing.”

Note: In both French and English it sounds more serious to say that somebody is lying. Using an expression shows that it is light-hearted and not a grave betrayal of trust.

Speaking is without a doubt the most important part of language learning, so here are some useful French sayings that will help your basic conversation skills, including a weather-related conversation starter, and some French Idioms about animals that can be used to continue a conversation…

Il pleut des cordes !”

Vocabulary list

  • il pleut: it’s raining
  • des cordes: ropes

Meaning

No matter what language you’re speaking, most people can agree that the weather is always a good topic when it comes to small-talk. In France, when it’s raining heavily you can say it’s raining ropes. The English equivalent in this case is far more strange: It’s raining cats and dogs! Ropes would probably be less terrifying than our beloved pets falling from the sky, although nowadays we’d just say it’s pouring down.

Example:

“Heureusement nous ne sommes pas allés au parc, il pleut des cordes !”

Literal translation:

“Fortunately we didn’t go to the park, it’s raining ropes!”

What it means:

“Thank goodness we didn’t go to the park, it’s raining cats and dogs!”

Revenons à nos moutons”

Vocabulary list

  • revenir: to go back
  • à: to
  • nos: our
  • moutons: sheep

Note: Revenons is the verb revenir conjugated in the 1st person plural, but there is no subject (we) therefore it is an imperative verb, used to give orders or advice. We can easily translate this as “let’s…”

Meaning

This idiom, which literally translates as let’s get back to our sheep can be used to get back on track, or back to business. This can be used in a conversation that has gone off on a tangent, or after a pause.

Example:

“Nous sommes en réunion et nous parlons des prochaines vacances, revenons à nos moutons.”

Literal translation:

“We’re in a meeting, and we’re talking about vacations! Let’s get back to our sheep.”

What it means:

“We’re in a meeting, and we’re talking about vacations! Let’s get back to business.”

Passer de coq à l’âne”

Vocabulary list

  • passer: to pass/go (from one thing to another)
  • de: from
  • coq: cockerel/rooster
  • à: to
  • l’âne: the donkey

Note: passer can mean several other things, most commonly to spend time (passer du temps), or to take an exam (passer un examen).

Meaning

If somebody passes from the rooster to the donkey in the middle of a conversation, expect them to say something completely irrelevant to what you were talking about, as this expression is a forewarning that they’re about to change the subject.

Example:

“Je sais que je passe de coq à l’âne, mais je dois te dire quelque chose…”

Literal translation:

“I know I’m going from the rooster to the donkey, but I have to tell you something…”

What it means:

“I know I’m changing the subject, but I have to tell you something…”

Finally, there are some French expressions that just don’t make sense!

Every language has a long list of idioms that are just downright bizarre, but the French have taken it one step further to confuse us all with a sentence that means the exact opposite to what it says…

Tu m’étonnes !”

Vocabulary list

  • tu: you
  • me: me
  • étonner: to surprise

Note: “Tu” is the informal and singular way to say you. This expression can only be said to individual people that you are close to, and not those who require the formal “vous”.

Meaning

If you say something and a French person replies “tu m’etonnes” then you might be left feeling perplexed. It literally means you surprise me. If you said something completely unsurprising and obvious, then why are they surprised?

They’re not. They’re actually agreeing with you, and are not surprised at all. Confusing, right?

Intonation is important here, because if you sound surprised then the saying will be understood literally. Some sarcastic expressions share the same meaning, such as “you don’t say” and “who’d have thought it?”

Example:

“Je me suis cassé le bras en tombant dans les escaliers, ça fait vraiment mal !”
“Tu m’etonnes !”

Literal translation:

“I broke my arm when I fell down the stairs, it really hurts!”
“You surprise me!”

What it means:

“I broke my arm when I fell down the stairs, it really hurts!”
“I’m not surprised!”

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