20 French Sayings That Make No Sense in English
This article is part of our Explore Your World Through Language campaign.
French is routinely rated as one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Whether the locals are reciting poetry or railing against a local politician, visitors tend to be swept away by its romantic-sounding syllables. However, listen closely and you realize that the words being spoken are sometimes absolutely nonsensical (to Anglophones at least). Here are just 20 such expressions to add to your phrasebook!
Coincer la bulle
Translation: To wedge the bubble
Meaning: To do nothing – this can apply to a two-hour lunch break, a four-week summer holiday, or any time in between.
Tomber dans les pommes
Translation: To fall in the apples
Meaning: To faint – this expression first appeared in a letter the French novelist George Sand sent to her friend Madame Dupin in the 19th century.
Avoir les dents du fond qui baignent
Translation: To have back teeth that are swimming
Meaning: To have overeaten – typically used after a massive family feast like le Réveillon at Christmas and New Year.
S’occuper de ses oignons
Translation: To take care of your onions
Meaning: To mind your own business – presumably, this phrase originates from the period in history when every French person was an onion trader.
C’est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours
Translation: It’s like Baby Jesus in velvet underpants
Meaning: This wine is delicious – while this can sometimes be used to describe a particularly delicious meal, it is usually reserved for the national drink.
Être sur son 31
Translation: To be on your 31
Meaning: To be well dressed – this possibly derives from the word ‘trentain,’ once used to describe luxury fabrics.
Rouler dans la farine
Translation: To roll in the flour
Meaning: To be duped – so if someone has deceived you, they have effectively rolled you in flour (and made you look like a fool).
Avoir la gueule de bois
Translation: To have the wooden face
Meaning: To be hungover – this refers to the dry mouth and unquenchable thirst of the morning after a night of heavy drinking.
Peigner la girafe
Translation: To comb the giraffe
Meaning: To engage in a long, pointless task – this one is quite self-explanatory: why on earth would you ever attempt to comb a giraffe?
Donner sa langue au chat
Translation: To give your tongue to the cat
Meaning: To give up – essentially, you have no more ideas and might as well leave it to the cat to come up with a plan of action.
Courir sur le haricot
Translation: To run on the bean
Meaning: To get on someone’s nerves – this has something to do with the Jack and the Beanstalk tale and is one of the politer elements of French workplace vernacular.
Il y a quelque chose qui cloche
Translation: There is something ringing
Meaning: There is something wrong – a close equivalent of ‘an alarm bell’s ringing’ or ‘to see a red flag.’
Avoir un poil dans la main
Translation: To have hair in your hand
Meaning: To be lazy – usually reserved for someone who avoids work at all costs.
Chercher la petite bête
Translation: To look for the little beast
Meaning: To look for something to complain about – the French equivalent of the English expression ‘to split hairs.’
Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
Translation: There’s no reason to whip the cat
Meaning: It’s no big deal – frankly, there’s never a good enough reason to whip the cat, metaphorically or otherwise.
Avoir le cafard
Translation: To have the cockroach
Meaning: To be depressed – this expression was first used by Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857 and, who knows, maybe it was the spark that set off Kafka’s inspiration for The Metamorphosis.
Raconter des salades
Translation: To tell salads
Meaning: To tell lies – this can also be used when telling people ‘everything you think you know is false.’
Ne pas être sorti de l’auberge
Translation: To not be out off the inn
Meaning: To face a complicated problem – a problem, naturally, that detains you in the local hostel.
Avoir une araignée au plafond
Translation: To have a spider on the ceiling
Meaning: To be a bit odd – this expression is a nice substitute for ‘s/he has a screw loose.’
Poser un lapin
Translation: To place a rabbit
Meaning: To stand someone up – if ever your date doesn’t show up, you can confidently say ‘il/elle m’a posé un lapin.’
If you’re interested in learning even more French, take yourself along to an Institut Français class or event!
This article is part of our Explore Your World Through Language campaign. If you enjoyed this exploration of the wonders of words, why not sink your teeth into these great pieces: