20 Most Common French Idioms
French idioms are some of the most unique and colorful. As you’ve been learning the language, you’re sure to have encountered at least a few. Of course you already know the ones we use in English, such as ‘c’est la vie’. Here we go through the most common French idioms you will need, and their – often hilarious! – translations. With these French idioms you will sound like a native!
1 . Ça marche / ça roule
2. Faire la grasse matinée
3. Un coup de foudre
4. Être dans la lune
5. Pisser dans un violon
6. Se mettre le doigt dans l’oeil
7. Ça coûte un bras
8. Les pieds dans le plat
9. Avoir un chat dans la gorge
10. Casser les pieds (à quelqu’un)
11. Tomber dans les pommes
12. C’est pas tes oignons
13. Recevoir une note salée
14. Compter pour du beurre
15. Cracher dans la soupe
16. Poser un lapin (à quelqu’un)
17. Quand les poules auront des dents
18. Il fait un froid de canard
19. Appeler un chat un chat
Have you ever found yourself watching a movie or reading a book in French and suddenly wondering why the last line you heard or read translated as ‘to put one’s feet in the dish’ or ‘it’s raining ropes’? Well congratulations, you’ve found a French idiom! The English language has its fair share that the French find amusing too – I rememberer finding out that in England it rains ‘cats and dogs’ and having a good laugh – but today we’re going to explore all the fun ways you too can express yourself with French idioms.
The French love their slang and their idioms and use them every day. Some are so quirky that it would be impossible to understand them on one’s own – and that’s where we come in! Let’s dive in the 30 most common French idioms, from the more general to the ones that use animal, food, and even body parts.
General French idioms
These French idioms don’t mention a particular food, animal or body part but can still be quite puzzling. As random as they can be, let’s see what we dig out:
1 . Ça marche / ça roule
Literally: it walks / it rolls
Actual meaning: ‘it’s working’, ‘it functions’ or ‘okay’, ‘got it’, ‘sure’
This one is literally used every day and you’ll find it in many movies and TV series. It can be used in many ways. The main meaning is ‘it works’
Pierre a réparé le lave-vaisselle et maintenant, ça marche.
Pierre fixed the dishwasher and now it’s working again.
On its own, and with its more slang counterpart ‘ça roule’, it will mean ‘okay’ ‘sure’ ‘that’s good’ :
Ça te dit de prendre un café après les cours?
Oui, ça marche!
Wanna grab a coffee after class? Yes, works for me!
2. Faire la grasse matinée
Literally: to do the fat morning. Figurative translation: to stay in bed late, to sleep in.
‘ Gras/grasse’ as in ‘Mardi Gras’ denotes a celebratory thing in French, so a reason to not have to wake up early! Very useful idiom during your vacation in France after a night out:
Je fais souvent la grasse matinée le weekend.
I often stay in bed late on the weekend
3. Un coup de foudre
Literally: a lightning strike. Actual meaning: love at first sight.
Love can be as dramatic as a thunderstorm for the French! Use it if you feel you’ve been hit by lightning when you meet that special someone for the first time.
Julien a aperçu Ramona au fond de la salle, ça a été un vrai coup de foudre.
Julien glanced at Ramona at the back of the room and it truly was love at first sight.
4. Être dans la lune
Literally: to be in the moon
Actual meaning: to daydream, to be distracted
Here’s poetic way to tolerate a little distraction. The French also use ‘être tête en l’air’ (’to be head in the air’) in the same way, or to describe some who is always that way.
– Tu penses qu’elle a compris?
– Ça m’étonnerais, elle est tout le temps dans la lune.
– Do you think she understood?
– I would be surprised, she’s always daydreaming.
Tu es tellement tête en l’air! Tu as encore perdu tes clés.
You are so distracted! You’ve lost your keys again.
5. Pisser dans un violon
Literally: Peeing in a violin
Actual meaning: To do something of no use, that will have no effect
Can you imagine how useful peeing in a violin would be? Well that speaks for itself. This French idiom appeared for the first time written in the 19th century and has become popular since them.
Tu peux toujours lui expliquer pourquoi, c’est comme pisser dans un violon.
You can always explain to him why, it will be no use.
French idioms using body parts
Now things are getting really interesting: from feet in a dish to a tongue made out of wood, be prepared to laugh! The French language has countless idioms that use body parts. Here are a few.
1. Se mettre le doigt dans l’oeil
Literally: to put one’s finger in one’s eye
Actual meaning: to be grossly mistaken
There are some explanations for this French expression, but I for one like to think that putting a finger in one’s eye doesn’t quite help to see things clearly! The French use this funny expression to mean that someone is trusting their imagination a bit more than facts:
Si tu penses que tu vas gagner, tu the mets le doigt dans l’œil !
If you think you’re going to win, you’re mistaken!
2. Ça coûte un bras
Literally: It costs an arm.
Actual meaning: It’s very expensive.
This one is pretty obvious since English has a similar idiom – It costs an arm and a leg. The origins are muddy but the expression most likely was copied by the French (just don’t tell them!). Another origins is found in wartime, when a limb was one of the priciest prices to pay, barring one’s own life.
In the same category, we find:
ça coûte la peau des fesses (it costs the skin of the butt).
ça coûte les yeux de la tête (it costs the eyes in the head)
Sa voiture lui a couté un bras/la peau des fesses/les yeux de la tête/
His car was very expensive.
3. Les pieds dans le plat
Literally: To put one’s feet in the dish
Actual meaning: to put your foot in it
Close to the English expression ‘to put your foot in your mouth’, or ‘to put your foot in it’, this one is used when someone talks about a subject that should have been left alone – a verbal blunder ifs you will.
Quand Chantal a parlé de ton ex, elle a vraiment mis les pieds dans le plat.
When Chantal talked about your ex, she really put her foot in it.
4. Avoir un chat dans la gorge
Literal translation: To have a cat in your throat
Actual meaning: To have a hoarse voice
For the French, being hoarse must feel like having a cat in your throat, whereas in English it feels like…a frog? Regardless, try singing or talking out loud with one of those animals in your airways – that can’t be easy!
Nicolas n’a pas pu chanter hier soir, il avait un chat dans la gorge
Nicolas wan’t able to sing las night, he had a frog in his throat.
5. Casser les pieds (à quelqu’un)
Literally: To break someone’s feet
Actual meaning: to be extremely annoying to someone
A very common French idiom, it is used when the other person is so annoying that it feels like they are ‘breaking’ you…or your feet:
Mon collègue me dérange toute la journée, il me casse les pieds! My colleague interrupts me all day long, he’s so annoying!
6. La langue de bois
Literally: Tongue of wood
Actual meaning: intentionally fake speech, doublespeak
This French idiom is often heard in relation to the news or politics. The French use it to denote a language devoid of reality, which does not answer the problem posed or is intentionally vague.
Le nouveau ministre a utilisé l’habituelle langue de bois dans son discours d’inauguration
The new minister used the usual doublespeak in his inaugural speech.
French idioms using food items
Of course the French love their food! And it’s no wonder it gave rise to a number of expressions that sound hilarious to foreign ears. Here comes the fun! And these are only a small fraction of what you will find out there…
1. Tomber dans les pommes
Literal translation: to fall in the apples.
Actual meaning: to faint
As improbable (and comical) as it is, this expression has its root in an older word ‘se pâmer’ which means ‘to faint’. ‘Pommes’ and ‘pâmer’ are close enough in sound that the expression was born and passed on to the common language as this colorful metaphor.
Quand elle a appris le nouvelle, ma grand-mère est tombée dans les pommes.
When she heard the news, my grandmother fainted.
2. C’est pas tes oignons
Literally: these are not your onions.
Actual meaning: none of your business
A very common phrase in French, this is a more casual one so be careful who you use it with. While telling off your friend might be ok, telling your boss or a shop owner ‘none of your business’ might not be quite as appropriate.
Tu veux savoir combien a coûté notre maison de vacances? Mais c’est pas tes oignons!
You want to know how much we paid for our vacation house? But it’s none of your business!
3. Recevoir une note salée
Literally: to receive a salty bill.
Actual meaning: to receive a huge surprise bill.
When you have to pay an unexpectedly high bill, in French it is a salty one! For example, if you keep ordering room service, you can get a salty bill at the end.
On est très contents des travaux dans notre maison, mais la note était salée!
We’re very please with the construction in our house, but the bill was high!
4. Compter pour du beurre
Literally: Counting for butter
Actual meaning: to count for nothing
One of many expressions with butter. When something or someone is being ignored, or doesn’t count (such as a turn in a board game), they ‘count for butter’. Butter is usually a sign of wealth in the French language, so this idiom is a bit of an anomaly. Yet it is very frequently used.
Et moi? Je compte pour du beurre?
What about me? Do I count for nothing?
Personne n’a gagné, ce tour compte pour du beurre.
Nobody won, this turn was for nothing.
5. Cracher dans la soupe
Literally: To spit in the soup
Actual meaning: to bit the hand that feeds one / to refuse something beneficial
Soup used to be an essential dish, and sometimes was used as synonym for ‘food’ or ‘wealth; in French. Spitting in it would be akin to refusing something that is perceived as beneficial. Most often the French use the negative version of the expression with “don’t spit in the soup” meaning that the person shouldn’t miss out on a opportunity or be ungrateful.
Tu m’invites? Alors je ne vais pas cracher dans la soupe!
You’re buying? Then I won’t say no!
French idioms using animals
We kept the best for last: some of the funniest French idioms are the ones that have to do with animals. They can be bizarre, off-the-cuff or completely brilliant – in any case you’re in for a laugh!
1. Poser un lapin (à quelqu’un)
Literal translation: to put a rabbit on someone.
Actual meaning: to stand someone up
Isn’t that a bizarre concept to express that you didn’t show up? This French idiom is one of the most commonly used and yet, not many people know that it has its origin in a bit of a murky, libertine context. (https://www.linternaute.fr/expression/langue-francaise/542/poser-un-lapin)
Elle m’a posé un lapin. Je l’ai attendue au café pendant deux heures.
She stood me up. I waited two hours for him at the café.
2. Quand les poules auront des dents
Literally: When hens will have teeth
Actual meaning: Never ever
This is one of the funniest in my opinion. It is used to say that something will never ever happen. When would hens ever grow teeth, right? An equivalent would be the other French idiom “À la Saint-Glinglin” (the French used to celebrate the Saints from the Catholic calendar, and ‘Glin-glin’ never existed!). The closest translation in English is “when pigs fly” which is a pretty colorful expression too!
Quand est-ce qu’elle va l’oublier?
Quand les poulets auront des dents!
When will she ever forget him?
When pigs fly!
3. Il fait un froid de canard
Literal translation: it’s duck-cold
Actual meaning: it’s really really cold
Here’s an example of a bizarre association. What would ducks get associated with freezing temperatures? Apparently, the best time for duck-hunting started in November, when the lakes would be frozen and the poor duck exposed.
Allumons un feu, il fait un froid de canard.
Let’s light a fire, it’s bitterly cold.
4. Appeler un chat un chat
Literal translation: to call a cat a cat.
Actual meaning: to say it as it is.
This French idiom is a good indicator of the frankness so typical of French culture, and maybe why the French can have endless debates about ‘political correctness’. Case in point is the phrase’s (risqué) origins. (https://www.linternaute.fr/expression/langue-francaise/6601/appeler-un-chat-un-chat/) The basic meaning is that we shouldn’t be afraid to call things as they are – similar to the English ‘to call spade a spade’.
Le gouvernement n’a pas tenu ses promesses. Appelons un chat un chat, ils n’en avaient jamais l’intention!
The government didn’t make good on its promises. Let’s speak plainly, they never intended to!
How and when to use French idioms
We hope you enjoyed these fun French idioms. The best way to get more familiar with them is to immerse yourself in the culture: watching French movies, listening to podcasts, TV shows or the radio. This is where you will hear them in context, and they will naturally start making sense to you.
Don’t be shy! The French always appreciate when you try using their language, so if you use them inappropriately don’t worry, someone will let you know. It happens! And you might both be entertained by the incident.
If you want to know more, remember our tutors can help you pronounce and understand these expressions so you can use them like a pro. Just contact the Strommen office at your convenience.
Most importantly, stay curious and keep trying! Merci et bon courage!