Like English (and many other languages), French is littered with idioms, many of them referring to animals, religion and parts of the body. A lot of French expressions have English equivalents and a few can even be translated word for word, but others are a bit further away from the English and some appear to make no sense at all. Get these sayings under your belt and you’ll soon be on your way to mastering the French language!
The French certainly like their cat idioms. We have a few of them in English too – ‘to let the cat out of the bag’, ‘raining cats and dogs’ ‘cat’s got your tongue’, ‘not enough room to swing a cat’. There must be something about cats that lends them to idioms.
1. Appeler un chat un chat
‘To call a spade a spade’;
2. Avoir un chat dans la gorge
To ‘have a cat in your throat’ (I guess having a frog in your throat isn’t so unusual for a nation who have frogs’ legs as one of their national dishes);
3. Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter
To ‘have other cats to whip’, a slightly more sinister way of saying that you have other fish to fry.
Religion features a few times in French idioms too, as it does it most languages and countries. Some of them are a little odd:
4. Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours
This has to be one of our favourites, because it’s so baffling. What it means is that something goes down smoothly, like a nice bottle of pinot noir. The literal meaning, however, is ‘little Jesus in velvet trousers’, the suggestion being that that’s a good thing. Not much stranger than ‘smooth as a baby’s bottom’, I suppose;
5. L’habit ne fait pas le moine
‘The clothes don’t make the monk’ (don’t judge a book by its cover);
6. Tirer le diable par le queue
This literally translates to ‘pull the devil by the tail’, but somehow means that someone is too poor to do anything.
Having a cat in your throat isn’t the only French idiom related to body parts.
7. Les murs ont des oreilles
This is the same as the English expression ‘walls have ears’ (meaning that you are in danger of being overheard);
8. Avoir le cœur sur le main
To be extremely generous (literally ‘to have the heart in the hand’);
9. Avoir un poil dans le main
To ‘have a hair in the hand’, which means to shy away from work;
10. Avoir un cheveu sur la langue
To ‘have a hair on your tongue’ – meaning you have a lisp.
Test your French level to ensure that native speakers don’t suggest you parler français comme une vache espagnole – speak French like a Spanish cow. We don’t know why it has to be a Spanish cow, as we imagine French ones aren’t great at le français either.
Do you know any great French idioms?