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11 Idioms to Add Color to Your French!

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!

French Idioms About Cats

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.

Mon Dieu – Religious French Idioms


Religion features a few times in French idioms too, as it does in 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 favorites 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.

French Idioms Related to Parts of the Body


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?