You’ve been learning French for a while, and you’re starting to feel confident in yourself. You have a solid grasp on everyday French vocabulary, and you think “Hey, I can understand French, no problem!” …And then you come across French idiomatic expressions! Everyone knows and loves a good idiom, but they can be disorienting when you hear them for the first time. To help you keep your bearings, we’ve prepared a list of some of the most common French idioms (and some of the strangest). These will help you get by when you’re conversing with French native speakers – and sprinkling them into your own speech will definitely take your expression up a notch.
If you already consider yourself a fluent (or even native) French speaker, don’t leave just yet! We’ve kept a little surprise for the end. I bet there’s an expression or two you’ve never heard! En voiture Simone !
What Are the Best French Idioms?
French is a very visual language, full of interesting imagery. As a result, there are tons of idiomatic expressions that describe situations or feelings in very creative ways. But sometimes they’re so “creative” that it can be difficult for non-native speakers to know what’s going on!
So, what are the best French idioms? Hard to say… They’re all so funny and interesting!
We’ve prepared a list of the most common French idioms, divided into categories. To start off, you’ll see that there are several that reference food. I wonder why…
French Idioms About Fruit
Pour des prunes
“Les brunes comptent pas pour des prunes !” (lit. “Brunettes don’t count for plums.”)
In her famous song from the 1980s, Lio showed her frustration with the preference that many men seemed to give blondes over brunettes. To put it simply, brunettes weren’t worth much to them. And that’s what “compter pour des prunes” means – to not have any value. So, if les brunes ne comptent pas pour des prunes, they’re generally pretty great!
You can listen to the whole song by Lio to see what else she has to say.
Avoir la banane/la pêche
Two fruits for the price of one! “Avoir la banane” or “avoir la pêche” (lit. To have the banana/To have the peach.) are two French idioms that you can use to show that you’re happy.
Picture a banana – doesn’t it look a bit like a smile? As for peaches, this fruit represents immortality in Chinese culture. Today, if tu as la pêche, you’re feeling good; you’re on top of the world.
“J’ai couru 5 km, j’ai la pêche !”
Être rouge comme une tomate
“Nathalie est secrètement amoureuse de Nicolas. Aujourd’hui, il lui a offert une rose. Elle est devenue rouge comme une tomate !” (lit. to be red like a tomato)
Here, the comparison is pretty clear. Tomatoes are red, and when a person blushes, they start to look like one. (Yes, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable!)
Ramener sa fraise
In this idiomatic expression, (lit. to bring one’s strawberry) “fraise” refers to a person’s head or face. When someone “brings their strawberry,” they are butting in on a conversation without an invitation.
“Non Christiane, on ne t’a pas demandé ton avis, cette conversation ne te regarde pas. Ne ramène pas ta fraise !”
Tomber dans les pommes
“Marc a fait du sport sans avoir mangé. Il est tombé dans les pommes.” (lit. to fall in the apples)
Marc passed out! And yet it seems that apples would be far from the most comfortable fruit to fall into. This expression originates with the author George Sand, who used it to evoke extreme fatigue.
Improve your spoken French
Do you want to improve your spoken French?
Good news: we have a course for that! The Speak French with Confidence MasterClass.
It’s a comprehensive 8-module course designed to help you improve every aspect of your spoken French – fluency, confidence, pronunciation, and more – step by step, and enjoy doing it.
Ne pas avoir un radis
If you don’t have a radish/no longer have a radish, then your bank account has seen happier days. In fact, this phrase simply means that you don’t have any money. It dates back to the 19th century, a time when radishes were a cheap, simple food that cost very little. It figures – it only makes sense that such a small vegetable would cost next to nothing…
“Pas de shopping pour moi ce mois-ci, j’ai plus un radis !”
Raconter des salades
“Je ne fais pas confiance à Jean-Pierre, il ne raconte que des salades…” Maybe you’ve figured it out already – Jean-Pierre isn’t very honest. He tells lies often. That’s what it means to “raconter des salades” (lit. to tell salads). This French idiom is a reference to the leafy green dish we all know. Because we also all know that salads are a great canvas to add lots of other ingredients to, just like some people like to spruce up their stories with a few exaggerations or fictional details!
Mettre du beurre dans les épinards
“J’ai accepté ce petit boulot pour mettre du beurre dans les épinards.” When you don’t have any radishes – or at least when you’re running low on cash – you might look for a way to “put a little butter in your spinach.” That is, to find a way to improve your financial situation (just like a little butter can add extra flavor to cooked spinach).
C’est la fin des haricots
“Ma boulangerie préférée va fermer. C’est la fin des haricots !” (lit. it’s the end of the beans) It’s hopeless! Yes, the French are a bit dramatic. Dramatic enough to have an idiomatic expression that makes a normal occurrence sound like the end of the world. There are a few different theories to explain the choice of beans in this instance. Generally, if there are no more beans, one of the cheapest foods you can buy, then there’s really nothing left. The situation is hopeless indeed!
Appuyer sur le champignon
“On est en retard, appuie sur le champignon !” (lit. to push on the mushroom) In other words, step on it! “Appuyer sur le champignon” means to speed up, but where do mushrooms come into play? The gas pedal on a car is flat and rectangular, nothing like a round dome… In fact, this is a reference to a much older iteration of the automobile; the first cars actually did have rounded gas pedals. So you really did have to push the mushroom to reach top speed.
Other Food Idioms
It’s a well-known fact: the French have a thing for good food… It’s part of our culture. Like a religion to some. We can’t help but think and talk about food all the time! You’ve already seen the fruit and vegetable idioms, but the list continues! You don’t have to look any further than these next expressions to see for yourself.
Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine
“Raoul a acheté une montre dernier cri pour seulement 100€. Il pensait faire une affaire mais le vendeur l’a roulé dans la farine ! Ce n’est pas une montre authentique.” (lit. to roll someone in the flour) Raoul was ripped off! To “roll someone in the flour” means to trick them; to pull the wool over their eyes, if you will. This comes from the fact that the French verb “rouler” can be synonymous with the word “tromper” (to trick). Just sprinkle a little flour on top, and there you have it – a freshly baked French idiom!
Être soupe au lait
(lit. to be milk soup) This one requires a bit more thinking outside of the box. What happens when you leave a pan of milk on the stove? Inevitably, it boils over quickly. The same can be said for a person who has a quick temper, or who is very sensitive. Their anger or their emotions rise to the surface quickly. “Bruno a encore pleuré quand je lui ai dit d’arriver à l’heure. Qu’est-ce qu’il est soupe au lait !”
Avoir du pain sur la planche
“Allez, on y va ! On a du pain sur la planche” (lit. there’s bread on the board) means “We’ve got work to do!” But this hasn’t always been the case. At the end of the 19th century, it simply meant you had plenty to eat. During that time, peasants would bake their own bread, which was often their principal source of nutrition. When multiple loaves were baked at once, they were lined up on a board, and there you had it: il y avait du pain sur la planche.
En faire tout un fromage
“Oui Sylvie, le serveur t’a apporté une eau gazeuse au lieu d’une eau plate mais n’en fait pas tout un fromage !” (lit. don’t make a cheese about it) It’s not worth getting angry at a server for making a simple mistake, but some people like to complicate everything. The origin of this expression? Milk is a very simple ingredient, and turning it into cheese is a complex process that takes a lot of time and effort.
Cheese (and some French cheeses in particular) can have pretty strong odors, too, which makes for an interesting parallel with a common English equivalent to this expression – “don’t make a stink.”
Mettre son grain de sel
“Cum grano salis.” This Latin phrase means “with a grain of salt,” and is the origin of this common French idiom. In Latin, the word “salt” also refers to intellect or jokes. The French expression, which translates as “to add one’s grain of salt” is used when someone gives their advice or opinion without being asked to. “Sandra est venue mettre son grain de sel quand je parlais avec le directeur. Ça ne la regarde pas !”
Note: French idioms in English aren’t always the same! The English expression “to take something with a grain of salt” has a different meaning. It is a warning not to believe 100% of what you hear. “You always have to take what Katie says with a grain of salt. She likes to exaggerate!”
French Idioms Involving Animals
There’s more to life than just food. There are also animals! If you can judge simply by the number of dogs you see being walked on the streets of Paris, the French are generally fond of animals. But it’s not just dogs in the spotlight here – there are many different French idioms that pull from animal characteristics and imagery.
Donner sa langue au chat
“Non Clémentine, je ne sais pas ce qui est jaune et qui attend… Je donne ma langue au chat.” You don’t have an answer to Clémentine’s riddle, either? Then you need to give your tongue to the cat, as well. This means that you’re admitting defeat and want her to tell you the answer to the riddle. This expression wasn’t always feline-inspired – long ago, people said: “Jeter sa langue au chien” (lit. throw your tongue to the dog). The expression has since evolved, as cats are generally considered today to be a symbol of mystery and subtle intelligence.
And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here’s the answer to that riddle: c’est Jonathan qui est jaune et qui attend.
Quand les poules auront des dents
“-Didier, tu me prêtes ta voiture?
-Bien sûr, quand les poules auront des dents !”
Apparently, Didier is a fan of both sarcasm and chickens. In this case, it can be understood that he has no intention of lending his car to anyone. “When chicken have teeth” is pretty much exactly the same as the English expression “when pigs fly.” That is, never. Or at least for a few more mutation cycles…
Avoir des fourmis dans les jambes
“Je me suis assis sur mon pied, maintenant j’ai des fourmis dans les jambes. Je ne peux plus marcher.” (lit. to have ants in your legs) Surely you’ve experienced this unpleasant sensation when your circulation is cut off and then returns to its normal flow. Doesn’t it remind you of tiny ants crawling on you?
Poser un lapin
“Yann est un peu triste: son rendez-vous Tinder lui a posé un lapin.” (lit. to lay down a rabbit) Poor Yann! No, his date didn’t bring him a stuffed animal. That would have been much nicer. Instead, they simply didn’t show up to the date, and didn’t tell him they weren’t coming. Why choose such a cute animal for an unfortunate situation? It dates back to the 19th century and was used when a man didn’t pay what was owed for the services of a fille de joie. It’s evolved a bit over the years but is still pretty negative.
Avoir le cafard
Cockroaches aren’t everyone’s favorite thing. They’re generally pretty undesirable in most situations. So it’s not really any surprise that this expression isn’t very positive, either. If you “have the cockroach,” you’re feeling a bit depressed or lethargic. “Il pleut et il fait froid. Je n’ai envie de rien aujourd’hui, j’ai le cafard.” The expression comes from the Arabic word “kafir” which refers to a non-believer. In French, though, the expression has expanded to include additional insects – you can also say “J’ai le bourdon” (lit. I have the bumblebee).
Body parts are another common subject for idiomatic expressions in French. Have you heard any before? Here, I’ll give you a hand (on vous donne un coup de main, rather) with the following expressions.
Les doigts dans le nez
No, this isn’t a particularly glamorous image, but it’s a good one to know. And it’s generally a good thing, for a change! If you can do something with your fingers in your nose, that means you can do it without using your hands…so it’s easy! And that’s all there is to it. “Moi, je peux faire une quiche lorraine les doigts dans le nez !” That’s nice, Olivia, but it would be even better if you didn’t.
Ne pas avoir froid aux yeux
This one doesn’t have anything to do with winter. And in any case, can you even feel temperature with your eyes? That’s a question for another day. “To not have cold eyes” means to not be afraid; to be brave. “Luc n’a pas froid aux yeux, il fait du canyoning tous les week-ends.”
This is one of the oldest French idioms on our list – to understand its origins, we have to go way back to the 16th century, when there were a whole bunch of different expressions involving chilly body parts. “Avoir froid aux dents,” for example, meant “to be hungry.”
En avoir plein le dos
“J’en ai plein le dos de mon voisin qui fait la fête tous les jours jusqu’à 2h du matin !” (lit. to have a full back) You’ve probably guessed it: “I’ve had it up to here with my neighbor; I’m tired of it.” Originally, this expression referenced a different part of the body, a little bit lower down. People said (and some still do): “J’en ai plein le cul.” Ultimately, though, the back became a more common, less vulgar way to phrase things.
Avoir le bras long
The arm is a part of the body that represents strength, power. There are several expressions like “an iron arm,” “the arm of justice,” etc… Here, “to have a long arm” refers to the reach of a person’s influence or power. “Liliane a obtenu une promotion car elle a le bras long. Elle a beaucoup de contacts dans l’entreprise.” For a more detailed explanation of this French idiom, listen to this podcast from Français authentique.
Casser les pieds de quelqu’un
“Marion me casse les pieds, je ne la supporte plus !” (lit. to break one’s feet) It seems that Marion is getting on our nerves! In short, she’s a pain in the rear. But as seems to always be the case, it’s better to use a pictorial expression to make our feelings understood. The word “casser” can also be paired with another body part: “to break one’s ears” is a similar concept. If “cette musique te casse les oreilles,” you really can’t stand it.
Colorful French Idioms
Most people know that the French love to see la vie en rose. But that’s not all! The French like to add color to their lives and to their language with many original idiomatic expressions. Positive or negative, here is a beautiful palette of colors to discover. If you need to brush up, you can also check out our article on French color vocabulary.
Être dans le rouge
“Je n’ai plus un radis ! Je suis dans le rouge !” (lit. to be in the red) If you remember from above, when you’re out of radishes, you’re broke! So where do colors come in? This anxiety-inducing color is commonly used to signal that there’s a problem. If your bank account is “in the red,” that often means that it’s overdrawn.
Être vert de rage
“J’ai prêté ma voiture à mon frère et il n’a pas payé le parking.”
“J’ai reçu une amende, j’étais vert de rage !” (lit. to be green with anger)
In other words, I was furious! You understand the word rage, but why green? It seems that in French, green is the color of anger.
Consider this: the word “colère” (anger) comes from the Latin word “cholera,” which means a surplus of bile. I know it’s not very fun to think about, but bile is green. And there you have it!
Avoir une peur bleue
(lit. to be scared blue) I promise, this time we won’t talk about the colors of our body fluids. Nevertheless, the “blue” of this expression comes from a physical response to fear. Some people who experience extreme fright might have difficulty breathing. The lack of oxygen causes them to turn a bit blue.
“Stéphane m’a fait une peur bleue quand il s’est caché dans mon appartement pour me surprendre !”
Once again, science and language go hand in hand to give us beautiful and colorful expressions. This time, it’s the liver that steals the spotlight. As you may know, a side effect of liver disease can be a yellowing of the complexion. The expression (lit. yellow laughter) comes from patients with liver disease who try to smile despite their condition. Therefore, when we “laugh yellow,” it’s not with our whole heart. “Camille a rit jaune quand je lui ai dit que ses nouvelles chaussures étaient moches. Mais je pense qu’elle n’a pas apprécié.”
Travailler au noir
(lit. to work in the dark) J’ai travaillé au noir cet été pour ne pas payer d’impôts.
When you work “under the table,” as you might say in English, you don’t declare your hours. This isn’t quite legal and is generally frowned upon.
This time, the reference to the dark comes from the Middle Ages. Back then, people weren’t allowed to work after dark. People sometimes substitute “noir” for the English word: “travailler au black.”
Review & Memorize
We encourage you to pick your favorite French idioms and start using them in your conversations! To help you out, we’ve created a handy table with all of the expressions we talked about today. If you’re a MosaLingua Premium user, you can easily add whichever ones you want to memorize as new flashcards using your MosaDiscovery plug-in.
|French Idiom||English Meaning|
|pour des prunes||to be worthless|
|avoir la banane / avoir la pêche||to be happy|
|être rouge comme une tomate||to turn red as a tomato|
|ramener sa fraise||to butt into a conversation|
|tomber dans les pommes||to faint|
|ne pas avoir un radis||to be broke|
|raconter des salades||to tell lies, to exaggerate|
|mettre du beurre dans les épinards||to help make ends meet|
|c'est la fin des haricots||it's the end of the world|
|appuyer sur le champignon||to speed up, to step on it|
|rouler quelqu'un dans la farine||to rip someone off|
|être soupe au lait||to be hot-tempered, overly sensitive|
|avoir du pain sur la planche||there's work to be done|
|en faire toute un fromage||to make a stink (about something)|
|mettre son grain de sel||to give your two cents' worth|
|donner sa langue au chat||to give up trying to guess an answer|
|quand les poules auront des dents||when pigs fly|
|avoir des fourmis dans les jambes||to have your legs fall asleep|
|poser un lapin||to stand someone up (on a date)|
|avoir le cafard||to be down in the dumps|
|(faire quelque chose avec) les doigts dans le nez||(to be able to do something) with your eyes closed|
|ne pas avoir froid aux yeux||to not be fainthearted|
|avoir plein le dos||to have had it up to here, to be tired of something|
|avoir le bras long||to have strong connections or influence|
|casser les pieds de quelqu'un||to get on someone's nerves|
|être dans le rouge||to be in the red|
|être vert de rage||to see red|
|avoir une peur bleue||to be scared to death|
|rire jaune||to laugh through gritted teeth|
|travailler au noir||to moonlight, to work under the table|
Bonus: A Few Regional Expressions
Now, we’re taking idioms in French to a whole new level: regional expressions. As a country, France is very linguistically rich. Of course, French is the official language, but the dialects spoken in different regions add a whole new dimension to the French language, even within the borders of France.
On se dit quoi !
As the good Picard (a person from Picardie) that I am, I couldn’t help but list one of my favorite French idioms first.
If you’ve seen the movie “Bienvenue chez les ch’tis,” you’ve seen the difficulties that non-northerners have with the expression “on se dit quoi” or “je vous dis quoi.” Here, “quoi” is not a question but rather “ce qu’il en est” (where things stand). In other words, “let’s keep in touch.” When a friend suggests you go to the movies next week, you can reply, “D’accord, on se dit quoi !” meaning you’ll establish where and when later.
Now what could this expression mean? If you’re not from the south of France, you may have never heard it. Knowing the meaning of the verb “péguer,” (from the old Occitan “pegar“) will surely help. It means “to stick” but typically comes with the connotation of an unpleasant feeling.
For instance, if your child spends a little time with some liquid glue and glitter, they might come to you looking like a Christmas tree and saying: “Ça pègue !”
C’est le pompon sur la Garonne
While I was watching Pékin Express—a reality TV show similar to The Amazing Race—and its wonderful variety of candidates from different regions, two participants from Toulouse said: “C’est le pompon sur la Garonne !”
All French people know the phrase “C’est le pompon” (in other words, “il ne manquait plus que ça” – that’s it; that’s the limit!) But why on the Garonne? In fact, this expression was inspired by a famous visit Napoleon made to Toulouse. While he was inaugurating a bridge across the Garonne, the wind blew the pom-pom off his hat and onto the river. This is how the people of Toulouse adapted “C’est le pompon !” into a local version.
We return to the North with an expression that will make your life a whole lot easier. Why complicate things that don’t need complicating? I know it’s usually not the case, but this time, the Northerners have the answer! Instead of the typical “se prendre les pieds dans quelque chose” (lit. get your feet caught up in something) which is rather long, we suggest “s’empierger.” This expression evokes tripping over a stone.
“Je me suis empiergé dans tes chaussures qui traînent dans le salon ! Va les ranger !”
Finally, you may be familiar with this expression if you’ve spent any time in the south of France. To be “fada” is to be crazy or foolish.
Its origin comes from the Provençal word for “touched by fairies.” Historically, this referred to someone with their head in the clouds, who didn’t seem to live in the same world as everyone else. Today, it has evolved toward a more negative connotation, typically referring to someone who is stupid or crazy. You’ll hear it a lot in Marseilles. There, it takes on even another meaning, in the sense of a committed fan. They will say: “fadas de l’OM” (a Marseille soccer team), for example. For more expressions from the South, check out the video below.
If you’ve enjoyed this article about French idioms, you might also like:
- “Verlan” Words: Secret French Slang (VIDEO)
- Essential French Slang Expressions
- Basic French Words You’ll Use Every Single Day