Popular French Sayings

Rachel Hanson
Bon voyage!

Some of the most popular sayings in French have made their way into the English language. While these phrases may not always be pronounced in the proper French manner, the spelling has most often stayed intact, and the meaning is the main reason for the phrases importation into English.

Popular French Sayings in English

Some arenas offer more French phrases than others. The French loves of food, art, and philosophy have led to many French phrases finding their way into everday English language.

Cooking and Eating

  • There is actually no English phrase for Bon appétit. The French phrase is the only one used in English.
  • Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup means: "Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly."
  • Instead of "live well", the French say "Eat well:" Mangez bien.
  • La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin, meaning: "Life is too short to drink bad wine". This is a typical French saying, and the French do enjoy consuming moderate amounts of good wine with their meals, noon and evening alike.

Dining Phrases

  • À la carte: This literally means 'on the menu'; but its meaning has come to refer to ordering individual items from the menu instead of a fixed-price three or four course meal in a restaurant
  • À la mode: In French this means 'in style'; in English it refers to serving pie with ice cream on top
  • Amuse-bouche: A bit-sized hors d'œuvre; literal translation: something amusing/pleasing to the mouth
  • Au gratin: In English this means that the dish is topped with cheese, which is then melted in the oven
  • Au jus: If you see a steak served 'au jus' in a restaurant, it means it is served with juice/gravy/sauce
  • Crème de la crème: Meaning 'the best of the best', this phrase literally translates to: 'the cream of the cream' ('cream of the crop')
  • Haute cuisine: 'High cooking,' this is a compliment to the food and the chef who made it
  • Hors d'œuvre: An appetizer; literal translation: outside of the masterpiece (the main course)

Art and Architecture

  • Art nouveau: A style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries
  • Avant-garde: Something that is on the cutting edge, particulary in the arts
  • Avant la lettre: Something so much on the cutting edge that the new trend doesn't have a name/term yet
  • Beaux-Arts: From the period of the early 20th century
  • Trompe l'œil: Something that tricks the eye

Life Philosophy

  • Bon voyage: 'Have a good trip;' the French phrase is almost as common as its English translation
  • C'est la vie: Meaning 'that's life,' this phrase indicates an acceptance of circumstances as they happen to be
  • Chef d'œuvre: A masterpiece
  • Comme il faut: As it should be
  • Déjà-vu: The experience that you may have seem the same thing before
  • Entre-nous: Something that is 'between us'
  • Fait accompli: Something that is complete, irreversible
  • Faux pas: A 'false step', this expression is used when someone deviates from the norm
  • Je ne sais quoi: Signalling an essential, although un-nameable, characteristic
  • Joie de vivre: Joy/happiness derived from life
  • Par excellence: Quintessential
  • Raison d'être: Reason for being/living
  • Savoir-faire: To know what to do

Popular French Slang Phrases

Some French slang is very popular as well. While these sayings have not made their way into everydayEnglish yet, their frequency in French is high. These are expressions that have grown into popular use, but cannot be translated literally without losing their meaning. If you enjoy modern French rock music, rap or film, you may want to learn some modern popular French sayings so that you can follow these terms.

As with all slang, idioms, and edgy sayings, use with caution, since usage depends upon context. While native French speakers know when and when not to use these expressions, these phrases may tumble out of the mouths of non-native speakers in the wrong context.

  • À cran: Edgy or nervous: used to describe furtive behavior.
  • À la côte: "On the rocks," referring to someone living on the edge, not to a drink served on ice.
  • À la fin: "All right already - enough," implying the speaker is out of patience.
  • Elle est bonne: "She's hot." Watch how you use this expression, as it has a strong sexual connotation.
  • Engueuler: To tell someone off.
  • Regarder en chiens de faïence: Glare at each other like you're going to face off and fight.
  • Rouler une pelle: To French kiss
  • Ta gueule: "Shut up." This is a rude way of saying be quiet, so use with caution.
  • Téloche: Television, but in a derogatory way; in English it would be 'the boob tube' or something else to imply mindless television programs.
  • Texto: To text message someone, send a text message.

For even more idioms and slang, check out the resources at Language Realm.

Learning French Sayings

There are more ways to learn popular French sayings that are fun and interactive. Rent modern French films on DVD or stream them online, or catch programs as they air on television. Listen to French music online, including modern bands and singers who include idioms and sayings in their songs. Read modern French literature, including short stories, novels and poetry. After all, the best way to learn a new language, not to mention the most fun, is to immerse yourself in the language and the culture.

Popular French Sayings