Home Education Language Learning French colloquial phrases you never learned at school
Last update on November 01, 2019
Written by Vanessa Couchman

Never eat a rabid cow. From the inscrutable to the impertinent, French idioms are anything but dull.

French, like all languages, has its colloquial phrases. The pure French that we learned at school has only a tenuous connection with the everyday French that people speak here. The grammar is recognisably the same, but a sub-culture of idiomatic French exists that probably never sullies the portals of l’Académie Française.

English is similar, of course. Where does ‘raining cats and dogs’ come from? Or ‘he knows which side his bread’s buttered’? And I defy all but the most fluent French speakers of English to get their heads around Cockney rhyming slang.

Over the years in France, we have absorbed many of these phrases, either by hearing them spoken or by reading them in novels. I’ve written about Georges Simenon’s Maigret books several times. Although their language is now a bit outmoded, they are a great place to find the kind of colloquial phrases that 1950s Parisian coppers and villains used.

Naturally, there are hundreds of these idioms. Here are some of my favourites, with the English translation, both literal and figurative.

Some are slightly odd

Tomber dans les pommes: fall into the apples; to faint. Why? Unless you’ve been over-indulging in the Calvados.

C’est passé comme une lettre à la poste: it went off like a letter in the post. This means that something went very smoothly. To me, though, this seems counter-intuitive; in my experience, the post doesn’t go very smoothly at all, unless it’s to deliver bills, which arrive with unerring regularity. In fact, our neighbours sent us a party invitation by post last summer, which never arrived. We missed the party and they thought we were miserable so and sos who didn’t deign to reply. In fact, they probably said, “Ils veulent péter plus haut que leurs culs.” (see below)

A few are less complimentary

Il veut péter plus haut que son cul: he wants to fart higher than his arse (apologies to any readers with delicate sensibilities); it means that he is overly taken with himself, thinks he’s the bee’s knees (and where did that one come from, in English?).

Ce n’est pas terrible: actually means the opposite of what it appears to mean, ie. it denotes that something is terrible or mediocre. You’ll often hear French people describing a restaurant as ‘pas terrible‘. In other words, it wasn’t much good.

Il est à côté de la plaque: he’s next to/beside the plate (in the sense of metal plate or sheet); he hasn’t got a clue.

A number are based on food

Elle n’était pas dans son assiette: she wasn’t in her plate; means that she was feeling off-colour.

Mettre les petits plats dans les grands: still on the plate theme, put the little dishes in the big ones; in other words, to lay on a slap-up meal.

Danser devant le buffet: dance before the buffet; this means to go hungry or skip a meal. It conjures up some delicious images.

Manger les pissenlits par la racine: eat the dandelions from the root up, ie. be dead.

Mettre du beurre dans les épinards: to put butter in the spinach; this means to make extra money or to make ends meet.

Several based on animals

Avaler des couleuvres: swallow grass snakes, ie. put up with a lot. It would be no mean feat swallowing some of the snakes we have here, which are easily a metre long.

Avoir le cafard: have the cockroach; have the blues, be down in the dumps.

Une truie n’y retrouverait pas ses petits: a sow wouldn’t find her piglets, ie. this place is a mess. A useful one for those of you with teenagers, or even just a husband.

Manger de la vache enragée: to eat a rabid cow, ie. to go through hard times or to have lean times. There seemed to be a few rabid cows in the Aubrac the day we went to the transhumance.

I think that’s enough to be going on with. I’d like to hear of others, especially the more obscure ones.

Read the rest of the series:

Reprinted with the permission of Life on La Lune.

Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer living in southwest France since 1997. As well as writing research reports and magazine articles she also blogs about France, aiming to show life there as it is, warts and all.