101 Funny French Idioms Explained in English

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Mouse Contemplating Funny French Idioms

Do you want to speak French like a native? Mastering French idioms can help. Idioms are sayings and expressions with meaning beyond their literal translations. Your ability to understand and use idiomatic phrases may make the difference between acceptance into the inner circle of a group of French friends.

For example, let's say somebody told you to "aller te faire cuire un œuf!" Literally, that means to "go and cook yourself an egg". But the meaning is quite different to a French person and you would do well to know. Each language has its funny sayings that mean something different from their literal meaning. And Idioms also tell a lot about people and their culture. Some French idioms can be understood because of a specific context. Using other French sayings out of context might just put you in an embarrassing situation!

We've compiled a list of the most commonly used French idioms to help you talk like a native. You will see there is an English equivalent to almost every French idiom! If you want to keep these sayings in your pocket, you might want to try French Translator & Dictionary + by downloading it for free on your iPhone & iPad or your Android device. 📲

aller se faire cuire un œuf – to go jump in the lake
Literal Translation: to go and cook yourself an egg

appeler un chat un chat – to call a spade a spade
Literal Translation: to call a cat a cat
You'll notice several French idioms mentioning cats. In 2017, Statista estimated that there were over 13.5 million cats in France. 29% of all French households own a cat!

apporter de l'eau au moulin de quelqu'un – to add grist to somebody's mill
Literal Translation: to bring water to somebody's mill

apprendre à un vieux singe à faire des grimaces – to teach an old dog new tricks (US), to teach granny to suck eggs (UK)
Literal Translation: to teach an old monkey to make funny faces
The English side of this idiom may seem a bit odd but at one point in history it was quite commonplace to make a small hole in an egg and suck out its contents.

arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe – to arrive at the worst possible moment
Literal Translation: to arrive like a hair on the soup

avoir d’autres chats à fouetter – to have bigger fish to fry
Literal Translation: to have further cats to whip

avoir le cafard – to be in the doldrums
Literal Translation: to have the cockroach

avoir des casseroles au cul – to be plagued by scandals
Literal Translation: to have pans attached to one's ass
This idiom is often used to describe unscrupulous politicians in France.

avoir la chair de poule – to have goosebumps
Literal Translation: to have chicken flesh

avoir un chat dans la gorge – to have a frog in your throat
Literal Translation: to have a cat in your throat

avoir le cœur sur la main – to be big-hearted
Literal Translation: to have the heart on the hand

avoir un coup de foudre – to feel love at first sight
Literal Translation: to be hit by lightning

avoir deux mains gauches – to be all thumbs
Literal Translation: to have two left hands

avoir la gueule de bois – to have a hangover
Literal Translation: to have a wooden mug

avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez – to lose your temper (US), to lose your rag (UK)
Literal Translation: to have the mustard climbing up to the nose
A strong Dijon mustard gives you a stinging sensation in your nose. In English, this idiom alludes that sensation when you become angry.

avoir du pain sur la planche – to have a lot on your plate
Literal Translation: to have bread on the board

avoir la pêche / la patate / la frite – to feel great (US), to be full of beans (UK)
Literal Translation: to have the peach / potato / french fry
If you are feeling full of energy you might use this idiom to say J'ai la pêche !

avoir un poil dans la main – to be bone-lazy
Literal Translation: to have a hair in the hand

avoir la tête dans le pâté/le cul – to feel groggy
Literal Translation: to have one’s head/arse in the pâté

avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre – to bite off more than you can chew
Literal Translation: to have eyes bigger than your stomach

battre le fer tant qu’il est chaud – to strike while the iron is hot
Literal Translation: to strike the iron while it is hot

boire comme un trou – to drink like a fish
Literal Translation: to drink like a hole

casser les pieds à quelqu’un – to drive somebody nuts
Literal Translation: to break somebody’s feet

casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un – to badmouth somebody behind their back
Literal Translation: to break sugar on somebody’s back

changer de crèmerie – to take one’s custom elsewhere
Literal Translation: to go to another dairy shop

chat échaudé craint l'eau froide – once bitten, twice shy
Literal Translation: a burned cat is afraid of cold water

chercher midi à quartorze heures – to make things over-complicated
Literal Translation: to look for midday at fourteen hours (i.e. 2pm)

chercher la petite bête – to split hairs
Literal Translation: to look for the bug

courir sur le haricot de quelqu’un – to get on somebody’s nerves
Literal Translation: to run on somebody’s bean

coûter les yeux de la tête – to cost an arm and a leg
Literal Translation: to cost the eyes of your head

les doigts dans le nez – to accomplish something easily
Literal Translation: fingers in the nose
In English, you wouldn't expect a task to be facilitated by having your fingers in the nose. But for the French, this idiom could be used to say you passed and exam with ease, J'ai réussi l'examen, les doigts dans le nez.

donner de la confiture aux cochons – to cast pearls before swine
Literal Translation: to give marmalade to the pigs

donner sa langue au chat – to give up on guessing
Literal Translation: to give one's tongue to the cat
This French idiom could be used when playing a trivia game. If your opponent runs out of time you could ask, Tu donnes ta langue au chat ? which means Do you give up?

en avoir gros sur le cœur/la patate – to be heavy-hearted
Literal Translation: to have a big one on the heart/the potato

en avoir ras-le-bol – to be fed up to the back teeth
Literal Translation: to have it very close to the edge of the bowl
This French idiom could be used if you are stressed out at work. J'en ai ras-le-bol ! is a way of saying I've had it!

en faire tout un fromage/plat – to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literal Translation: to make a whole cheese/dish with it

enfoncer une porte ouverte – to whip a dead horse
Literal Translation: to push an open door

engueuler quelqu'un comme du poisson pourri – to give somebody a earful (US), to give somebody a rollicking (UK)
Literal Translation: to tell somebody off as if they were a rotten fish

entrer quelque part comme dans un moulin – to waltz in somewhere as you please
Literal Translation: to go inside a place as inside a mill

être le dindon de la farce – to be the butt of the joke
Literal Translation: to be the turkey of stuffing

être au four et au moulin – to wear too many hats
Literal Translation: to be at the oven and the mill at the same time

être bien dans sa peau – to feel good about one's self
Literal Translation: to be good in one’s skin

être long(ue) à la détente – to be slow on the uptake
Literal Translation: to be slow on the trigger

être à l’ouest/à la ramasse – to run on empty
Literal Translation: to be in the west/picked up
After studying all night for a test you might use this idiom to say Je suis à la ramasse.

ne faire qu’une bouchée de quelqu’un – to wipe the floor with somebody
Literal Translation: to make one bite of somebody

faire une queue de poisson – to cut somebody up
Literal Translation: to make a fishtail

faire la grasse matinée – to sleep in (US), to have a lie-in (UK)
Literal Translation: to make a fat morning

faire l’andouille – to be silly
Literal Translation: to make the sausage
This French idiom refers to a smoked sausage made from pork. If you call somebody une andouille in French it means they are a dummy.

faire un tabac – to strike it rich
Literal Translation: to make tabacco
Un tabac is also the word for a French café that sells cigarettes and newspapers so this idiom could be understood literally to mean make a café.

filer à l'anglaise – to sneak out
Literal Translation: to slip away the English way

finir en queue de poisson – to fizzle out
Literal Translation: to end like a fishtail

la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase – the final straw that breaks the camel’s back
Literal Translation: the water drop that makes the vase overflow

l’habit ne fait pas le moine – you can't judge a book by its cover
Literal Translation: clothes don’t make the monk

il faut souffrir pour être belle – no pain, no gain
Literal Translation: one has to go through pain to be beautiful

il n'y a pas un chat – nobody's here
Literal Translation: there isn't a cat
If you go to a danse club and it's empty, you might use this French idiom to tell your friends it's not worth going.

jeter l’argent par les fenêtres – to poor money down the drain
Literal Translation: to throw money out of the window

jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain – to throw the baby out with the bathwater
Literal Translation: to throw the baby away together with the bathwater

jeter l’éponge – to throw in the towel
Literal Translation: to throw the sponge away
As in English, this French idiom traces its origins to boxing. If a trainer feels their boxer should quit, they can throw in the sponge or the towel to concede the match.

joindre les deux bouts – to make ends meet
Literal Translation: to join both ends

la fin des haricots – the last straw
Literal Translation: the end of the green beans
More often than not, the French use this idiom sarcastically to mean things really aren't all that bad.

les carottes sont cuites – your goose is cooked
Literal Translation: the carrots are cooked
Food is important to the French and it appears in a lot of idioms. If you are down 4-0 in a football/soccer match with 10 minutes to go, it could well mean Les carottes sont cuites!

mener quelqu’un en bateau – to lead someone up to the garden path
Literal Translation: to take somebody to a boat ride

mettre la charrue avant les boeufs – put the cart before the horse
Literal Translation: to put the cart before the oxen

mettre son grain de sel – to put in two cents
Literal Translation: to put one’s grain of salt

ne pas être dans son assiette – to feel under the weather
Literal Translation: not to be in your plate

ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuillère – not to go in with half measures
Literal Translation: not to go with the back of the spoon

ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche – not never be at a loss of words
Literal Translation: not to have one's tongue in one's pocket

ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages – the lights are on but nobody’s home
Literal Translation: not to have light at all floors

ne pas casser trois pattes à un canard – nothing to write home about
(Literal Translation: not to break three legs at a duck

ne pas être sorti de l’auberge – not to be out of the woods
Literal Translation: not to be out of the inn

pas avoir de quoi fouetter un chat – no need to get your knickers in a twist
Literal Translation: nothing to whip a cat about

passer du coq à l’âne – to jump from pillar to post
Literal Translation: to switch from the rooster to the donkey

passer l'arme à gauche – to kick the bucket
Literal Translation: to pass your weapon on the left side

péter un câble – to blow a fuse
Literal Translation: to break a wire

petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid – little strokes fell great oaks
Literal Translation: little by little, the bird builds his nest

pipi de chat – not important
Literal Translation: cat pee
You could use this French idiom to console a friend. Spilled some wine on your favorite shirt? C'est du pipi de chat.

plumer quelqu'un – to take somebody to the cleaner's
Literal Translation: to pluck somebody

poser un lapin – to stand someone up
Literal Translation: to put a rabbit down

prendre ses jambes à son cou – to take your heels
Literal Translation: to take your legs up to your neck

presser quelqu'un comme un citron – to squeeze somebody dry
Literal Translation: to sueeze somebody like a lemon

quand les poules auront des dents – when pigs fly
Literal Translation: when chickens have teeth

Quand le chat n'est pas là, les souris dansent. – When the cat's away, the mice will play.
Literal Translation: When the cat isn't there, the mice danse.

à quelque chose malheur est bon – every cloud has a silver lining
Literal Translation: misfortune has to be good for something

qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf – give somebody an inch and he/she will take a mile
Literal Translation: someone who steals an egg steals an ox

raconter des salades – to spin a yarn
Literal Translation: to tell salads

ramener sa fraise – to stick your oar in
Literal Translation: to bring your strawberry back

rendre l'âme – to give up the ghost
Literal Translation: to give the soul back

revenir à ses moutons – to get back on topic
Literal Translation: to go back to one’s sheep

rouler quelqu’un dans la farine – to cook somebody's goose
Literal Translation: to make somebody roll up into flour

se jeter dans la gueule du loup – to throw oneself in the lion's den
Literal Translation: to throw oneself in the wolf's mouth

se mettre sur son 31 – to be dressed up to the nines
Literal Translation: to put yourself on your 31

se noyer dans un verre d'eau – to be as helpless as a babe
Literal Translation: to drown in a glass of water

s’envoyer en l’air – make love, have sex
Literal Translation: to throw oneself in the air
Love and relationships are a popular source of French idioms. S’envoyer en l’air is a light-hearted way to refer to making love, a favorite French hobby.

se serrer la ceinture – to tighten one’s belt
Literal Translation: to tighten one’s belt

s’occuper de ses oignons – to mind your own business
Literal Translation: to look after your onions

un tien vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Literal Translation: one which is yours is better than two that will be yours

tomber dans le panneau – to fall into the trap
Literal Translation: to fall into the sign

tomber dans les pommes – to faint
Literal Translation: to fall in the apples

tourner au vinaigre – to turn sour
Literal Translation: to turn into vinegar

traîner quelqu’un dans la boue – to drag somebody’s name in the mud
Literal Translation: to drag somebody in the mud

vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué – to count your chickens before they hatch
Literal Translation: to sell the bear's skin before it chats been killed

If we missed one of your favorite French idioms or you've written an article about learning French, don't hesitate to email us at outreach@vidalingua.com to let us know.

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À plus dans le bus ! (See you later alligator!)

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Christine Ducos-Restagno
Lead French linguist

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