20 French Sayings That Make No Sense in English

Before visiting France, read up on some of its unique, and often confusing, phrases
Before visiting France, read up on some of its unique, and often confusing, phrases | © Andrew Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Paul McQueen
10 September 2020

French is one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but if you listen closely, you’ll notice that some of the expressions are absolutely nonsensical when translated. Culture Trip curates 20 phrases Anglophones will have a hard time getting their minds around.

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, such as 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 phrase can sometimes describe an exceptional 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 (1734) 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 (1915).

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 of 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 “she or 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.”

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