Home Education Language Learning More French colloquial phrases
Last update on November 11, 2019

An expat gives us more amusing – and useful – French idioms.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of French colloquial phrases. I wrote about a few of the more common ones a while back. I read in the Figaro Magazine that a new book had been published about those that are based on animals, titled Comme Vache Qui Pisse – see below for the explanation of that phrase. This prompted me to do some more research on them.

In doing so I found an excellent website, Expressio, which publishes a daily phrase plus its explanation, origins and equivalents in other languages. They have also published a book of 1,001 French expressions. Many seem to have arisen in the 18th–19th centuries; at least, that is when the first written source often appears. But it’s possible that some were around for much longer than that.

I’ve selected a few, mostly current, animal expressions. Some of them I had already heard but there are more obscure ones as well. They are divided into those that describe the weather, personal characteristics and situations.

Weather

Pleuvoir comme vache qui pisse: to rain like a pissing cow, ie. in abundance. This expression first appeared in the second half of the 19th century in written texts but I would bet it was around before that. Needs no further explanation.

Then there are several that take dogs and ducks as their inspiration.

Un froid de canard: a duck’s weather, ie. freezing cold.

Un temps à faire se pendre un canard: weather to make a duck hang itself. Since ducks are impervious to water – water off a duck’s back etc. – it must be pretty dire to make one of them want to commit suicide.

Un temps de chien: very bad weather. No chic Parisienne would be seen without her toutou nowadays but in the past dogs were regarded as the lowest of the low.

On ne mettrait pas un chien dehors: you wouldn’t put a dog out in it. This must refer to even worse weather than un temps de chien.

Personal characteristics

Etre un ours mal léché: to be a badly licked bear, ie. be badly brought up, vulgar or reclusive. This appeared in the 18th century. At that time it referred to a person with an awkward, bulky body or vulgar behaviour. People believed that mother bears licked their unformed newborn cubs into shape – this could be the origin of ‘licking someone into shape’ in English too. Bears are also solitary creatures, hence fleeing society.

Avoir des oursins dans la poche: have sea urchins in your pocket, ie. be mean. Since sea urchins are notoriously prickly, having them in your pocket would be an effective disincentive to ferreting in there for your wallet. This has been around since the 16th century.

La vache: the cow, but not in the sense we use it in English since it can be applied to a man or a woman to mean crafty or unpleasant. This arose in the late 19th century. It is based on the fact that cows can unexpectedly give a nasty side kick. These days it can also be an exclamation of admiration.

Avoir des fourmis dans les jambes: have ants in your legs, ie. to have pins and needles or to be restless, in need of moving about. We would say ‘to have ants in your pants’.

Parler français comme une vache espagnole: to speak French like a Spanish cow, ie. very badly. This appeared from about 1640. It’s difficult to know where it originated except that ‘espagnole’ was a pejorative term at one time. Why vache? There are various theories but it was also a derisory term.

Situations

Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat: there isn’t enough in it to whip a cat, ie. it’s nothing to make a fuss about.

Ca ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard: this wouldn’t break three legs on a duck, ie. there’s nothing remarkable or extraordinary about something, since a duck with three legs would be hard to find.

Poser un lapin: keep someone waiting for an arranged meeting, stand someone up. In the 19th century, coller un lapin or poser un lapin meant not to pay a woman of easy virtue for her services, hence their subsequent practice of being paid up front. It captures the idea of not meeting your commitments.

Quand les poules auront les dents
: when hens have teeth, ie. never. The first written mention is in the 18th century but was probably used long before that. In English we have an expression, ‘As rare as hens’ teeth’.

I’ll bring you some more when I’ve done additional research.

Here’s a challenge for you. Try to think of a phrase that employs as many of the above expressions as possible. Have fun!

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