The 10 best French idioms for beginners

by Audrey Sivadier
December 14, 2020
woman looking up All about holiday pay in Spain

When you’re a beginner in the French language, every word counts in order to understand a conversation or a document you’re reading. But beware, one word can hide another meaning when you speak…

Here are the 10 most popular expressions and idioms that all beginners should know

1. Jeter l’argent par les fenêtres

Literally: To throw money through the window

Yes, in France we don’t throw money down the drain, like the English idiom, but through the windows. This expression dates back to the Middle Ages when, in the absence of a sewer system, the windows saw all sorts of things going through them. It was not a good idea to walk underneath them at that time; one could be decorated with dirty liquids or rubbish… But the image conveyed by this expression is very easily understood: whoever throws money out of the window (or down the drain) in their home would be wasting his fortune as stupidly as if he were spending it on buying useless things.

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2. Quand les poules auront des dents

Literally: When chickens will have teeth

Most people know that birds, in general, have no teeth inside their beak. Therefore, even if we take into account Darwin’s discoveries on the evolution of species, as long as humans are on this planet and continue to raise chickens, it is unlikely that these creatures will have teeth one day since the main use of their beak will remain to dig the earth, peck grain. In other words, when the chickens will have teeth is simply a phrase synonymous with “never” or “à la Saint-Glinglin”, “le 36 du mois” (“until the 12th of Never”).

3. Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

Literally: To have other cats to whip

The English version, “to have other/bigger fish to fry” is more coherent, since the fate of most fish is to be pan-fried.

In both cases, we will use this expression when we have other more interesting things to do.

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4. Être myope comme une taupe

Literally:  To be short-sighted as a mole

A mole is seen in French as visually impaired, but also as an infiltrated spy!

In English, like the previous expression, another animal is used, “To be as blind as a bat” – a perfectly logical comparison too!

5. Il pleut des cordes

Literally: It’s raining ropes

Much less colourful than “it’s raining cats and dogs”, the French expression simply poetically describes the shape of the rain that falls, like ropes, in a straight line.

We will use “chien (“dog”) in” il fait un temps de chien” or “il fait un temps à ne pas mettre un chien dehors” to say that the weather is bad. It is weird that the French reserve a better treatment for dogs than for cats.

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6. Donner sa langue au chat

Literally: To give your tongue to the cat

You will often hear this expression when someone wants to tell you a joke or a riddle. When you don’t know, or when you give up, you can use this expression.

Here’s an example:

Quelles sont les lettres françaises les plus vieilles ?  – What are the oldest French letters?

Je ne sais pas, je donne ma langue au chat. – I don’t know, I give up.

A et G (âgé !) – A and G (old!)

7. Fumer comme un pompier

Literally: To smoke like a fireman

In English we talk about chimneys producing smoke or fire, in French we accuse the firemen of smoking too much. We don’t really know where this expression comes from, perhaps when they rub a little too closely against the flames, to have some parts of their clothes start to catch fire and give off smoke?

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8. Coûter un bras

Literally: To cost an arm

It is obvious that the arm is a part of the body that would be difficult to do without.

This expression comes from North America. Our French-speaking Canadian cousins use it, eventually adding “and half of the other”. 

In French, you can also replace “un bras” with “les yeux de la tête (“the eyes of the head”) or “la peau des fesses” (“the skin of the buttocks”).

9. Être sage comme une image

Literally: To be quiet like a picture

This expression is used especially with children, to ask them to be calm. It’s an expression that rhymes perfectly, so it’s very much used and well repeated by children. The English version “good as gold” also rhymes well!

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10. Devenir chèvre

Literally: To become a goat

The goat is not particularly seen as crazy by the French, but that’s what they say as they feel that the situation they are living through will drive them crazy.

So there you have some of the most common French idioms. Do these idioms make you become a goat (devenir chèvre)?

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