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People talking in a Paris café │© ☰☵ Michele M. F.

20 French Sayings That Make No Sense In English

Picture of Paul McQueen
Paul McQueen
Updated: 30 March 2017
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!

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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.

Bubble │© Alexas_Fotos

Bubble │© Alexas_Fotos

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.

Apples │© Pexels

Apples │© Pexels

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.

Open mouth │© Kjerstin_Michaela

Open mouth │© Kjerstin_Michaela

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.

Onions │© Couleur

Onions │© Couleur

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.

Baby Jesus │© Efraimstochter

Baby Jesus │© Efraimstochter

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.

Well-dressed man │© Unsplash

Well-dressed man │© Unsplash

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).

Rolling in the flour │© AdinaVoicu

Rolling in the flour │© AdinaVoicu

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.

Wooden face │© dimitrisvetsikas1969

Wooden face │© dimitrisvetsikas1969

Peigner la giraffe

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 brush a giraffe?

Giraffe │© Sponchia

Giraffe │© Sponchia

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.

A cat at work │© epicantus

A cat at work │© epicantus

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.

Green beans │© LoggaWiggler

Green beans │© LoggaWiggler

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.’

Bells │© Peggy_Marco

Bells │© Peggy_Marco

Avoir un poil dans le main

Translation: To have hair in your hand

Meaning: To be lazy – usually reserved for someone who avoids work at all costs.

Lazy person │© tookapic

Lazy person │© tookapic

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.’

A mouse in a field │© btfrewinphotography

A mouse in a field │© btfrewinphotography

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.

Hungarian whip dance │© Stones

Hungarian whip dance │© Stones

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. 

Depressed cockroach │© beeki-thecoffeedrinker

Depressed cockroach │© beeki-thecoffeedrinker

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.’

Salad leaves │© ejaugsburg

Salad leaves │© ejaugsburg

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.

Rustic inn │© Tama66

Rustic inn │© Tama66

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 lose.’

Spider │© ROverhate

Spider │© ROverhate

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.

Rabbit │© MikeBird

Rabbit │© MikeBird