Simply put, idioms are expressions or sayings that do not make sense when translated word for word, but have meaning to a native speaker. They often carry certain cultural nuances that are relevant for native speakers. For the non-native speaker, French idioms and their meanings simply have to be memorized.
A List of French Idioms
Here is an alphabetical list of common French idioms, along with their meanings and any relevant historical context.
À la bonne franquette
- Translation: There is not a good literal translation for this, 'franquette' is a form of 'franc' as in frank or straightforward.
- Meaning: À la bonne franquette is the French term for potluck. However, it can also be used to describe something informal or simple.
- In context: Nous mangeons à la bonne franquette. -- We're eating an informal meal, or we're eating at a potluck.
Appeler un chat un chat
- Translation: Literally translates as to call a cat, a cat.
- Meaning: To call a spade a spade. To speak your mind or to speak the truth. Another way to interpret this French idiom is to call it like it is.
- In context: Vous pouvez compter sur ce qu'Il dit; Il appelle toujours un chat un chat. -- You can trust what he says, he always tells it like it is.
- Translation: At the nose (The English equivalent to 'pif' would be something like schnoz.)
- Meaning: A general estimate
- In context: Il y a une dizaine au pif. -- There is roughly a dozen I would estimate.
Aux calendes grecques
- Translation: Literally translates as the first day of the Greek calendar.
- Meaning: Aux calendes grecques essentially means that it will never happen. This is equivalent to the English expression, when pigs fly.
- In context: ce qui se passera aux calendes grecques.-- That will happen when pigs fly. Nous allons renvoyer aux calendes grecques la réunion.-- We will postpone the meeting indefinitely.
Note: The French idiom aux calendes grecques most often is heard with the verb renvoyer to mean that it will be postponed indefinitely.
Avoir le cafard
- Translation: Literally translates as to have the cockroach.
- Meaning: Avoir le cafard has the connotation that you are so bored you are depressed or lack all manner of morale.
- In context: je ne peux pas terminer, J'ai tellement le cafard! -- I am so bored, I can't possibly finish.
Avoir un faim de loup
- Translation: Literally means to have the hunger of a wolf.
- Meaning: Avoir un faim du loup means to be extremely hungry.
- In context: je peux manger tout cela ici, J'ai un faim de loup! -- I am so hungry I can eat everything here!
bien dans sa peau
- Translation: Well in one's skin
- Meaning: While the expression does convey the general idea of being happy or content with one's circumstances, it is generally used negatively to express any type of teenage angst.
- In context: Les jeunes ne sont pas bien dans leur peau. -- Young people do not seem to be at ease with their bodies.
Bourrer le crâne
- Translate: Literally to stuff the brain.
- Meaning: This expression has the connotation that the person doing the filling doesn't really know what they are talking about. Although it can mean to indoctrinate, it generally does not refer to an organization doing the indoctrination or brainwashing but rather an ill informed individual.
- In context: Elle bourre le crâne avec des idées stupides. -- She has a lot of stupid ideas. (The connotation is that she is sharing those 'stupid ideas' very freely or influencing someone else with the ideas.)
Coup de foudre
- Translate: Literally means a bolt or flash of lightening.
- Meaning: Love at first sight.
- In context: Lorsque je l'ai rencontré c'était le coup de foudre. -- When I first saw him, it was love at first sight.
Dans son assiette or Ne pas être dans son assiette
- Translate: Literally means to be (or not be) in one's own plate
- Meaning: Dans son assiette means to feel at home or very comfortable. Ne pas être dans son assiette means that one is feeling under the weather or not quite oneself.
- In context: je suis dans mon assiette chez toi! -- I feel at home in your house. je suis désolé, mais je ne suis pas dans mon assiette aujourd'hui. -- I'm sorry, I'm just not feeling myself today.
- Translate: Literally to become a goat.
- Meaning: This French idiom means to become extremely angry or enraged.
- In context: je vais devenir chèvre si cela se produit. -- I'll be so mad if that happens!
du jour au lendemain
- Translate: This literally means 'from the day to the next.'
- Meaning: When you say something happens 'du jour au lendemain,' it means that it happened suddenly and unexpectedly. It doesn't literally mean that it happened in one night and cannot be used to mean overnight in that context.
- In context: Mon fils est devenu un homme du jour au lendemain. -- My son became a man overnight.
faire le pont
- Translate: To make a bridge
- Meaning: In France, this expression refers to taking a long weekend. Whenever a standard holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, the French 'make a bridge' to the next working day and take a nice long four day weekend.
- In context: La Bastille est mardi, donc on va faire le pont. -- Bastille Day is on a Tuesday this year, so we'll take a long weekend.
- Translate: 'faire une gaffe' means to make a blunder, but leaving the 'une' out gives it a whole new meaning.
- Meaning: If you tell someone, 'fais gaffe,' you are telling them to watch out or be careful.
- In context: fais gaffe! La poêle est chaud. -- Watch out! The stove is hot.
La goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase
- Translation: The drop of water that makes the vase overflow.
- Meaning: This is equivalent to the English expression, the straw that broke the camel's back.
- In context: La goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase était au moment de son départ. -- The straw that broke the camel's back is the moment he left.
Pleuvoir des cordes
- Translation: To literally rain ropes.
- Meaning: Comparable to the English expression, to rain cats and dogs.
- In context: je ne peux pas conduire, Il pleut des cordes! -- I can't drive, it's raining cats and dogs!
quand on parle du loup
- Translation: When one speaks about the wolf. . .
- Meaning: This is similar to the English idiom, speak of the devil.
- In context: Ah! quand on parle du loup. . .nous venons de parler de toi. -- Oh, speak of the devil. . .we were just talking about you.
revenons à nos moutons
- Translation: Let's return to our sheep.
- Meaning: Let's get back to the topic at hand.
- In context: je vais en parler demain, pour le moment, revenons à nos moutons. -- We can talk about that tomorrow. For now, let's get back to the topic at hand.
tu connais la musique
- Translation: You know the music.
- Meaning: You know the routine.
- In context: Pour votre premier jour, suivez Jacques. Il connaît la musique. -- For your first day, follow Jack. He knows the routine.
- Translation: You surprise me.
- Meaning: This expression is more like 'tell me something I don't know', or I'm not surprised. (Think of in English when you say, 'I could care less,' to mean that you don't care at all. The idea is similar here.
- In context: J'ai besoin de café quand je me réveille. (La réponse. . .) Ah - tu m'étonnes. -- I need coffee when I wake up in the morning. (The response. . .) Tell me something I don't know.
Tips for Improving Your French
It is worth mentioning that if you really want to speak French fluently, studying slang and idioms is a worthwhile endeavor. Speakers of any language constantly use idiomatic expressions in their spoken communications. It is the use of colloquialisms and everyday expressions that will make you seem like a native speaker.