81 Funny French Idioms Explained in English

Do you want to speak French like a native? Mastering French idioms can help. Idioms are sayings and expressions with meaning beyond their literal translations. Your ability to understand and use idiomatic phrases may make the difference between acceptance into the inner circle of a group of French friends.

For example, let's say somebody told you to "aller se faire cuire un œuf!" Literally, that means to "go and cook yourself an egg". But the meaning is quite different to a French person and you would do well to know. Each language has its funny sayings that mean something different from their literal meaning. Some French phrases can be understood because of a specific context. Using others French sayings out of context might just put you in an embarrassing situation!

We've compiled a list of the most commonly used French idioms to help you talk like a native. If you want to keep these sayings in your pocket, you might want to try French Translator & Dictionary + by Vidalingua. You can download it for free on your iPhone or Android.

aller se faire cuire un œuf – to go jump in the lake
Literally: to go and cook yourself an egg

appeler un chat un chat – to call a spade a spade
Literally: to call a cat a cat

apporter de l'eau au moulin de quelqu'un – to add grist to somebody's mill
Literally: to bring water to somebody's mill

apprendre à un vieux singe à faire des grimaces – to teach granny to suck eggs
Literally: to teach an old monkey to make funny faces

arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe – to arrive at the worst possible moment
Literally: to arrive like a hair on the soup

avoir d’autres chats à fouetter – to have bigger fish to fry
Literally: to have further cats to whip

avoir le cafard – to be in the doldrums
Literally: to have the cockroach

avoir la chair de poule – to have goose bumps
(Literally: to have chicken flesh

avoir un chat dans la gorge – to have a frog in your throat
Literally: to have a cat in your throat

avoir un coup de foudre – to feel love at first sight
Literally: to be hit by lightning

avoir deux mains gauches – to be all thumbs
Literally: to have two left hands

avoir la gueule de bois – to have a hangover
Literally: to have a wooden mug

avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez – to lose your rag
Literally: to have the mustard climbing up to the nose

avoir du pain sur la planche – to have a lot on your plate
Literally: to have bread on the board

avoir la pêche/patate/frite – to be full of beans
Literally: to have the peach/potato/fry

avoir un poil dans la main – to be bone-lazy
Literally: to have a hair in the hand

avoir la tête dans le pâté/le cul – to feel groggy
Literally: to have one’s head/arse in the pâté

avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre – to bite off more than you can chew
Literally: to have eyes bigger than your stomach

battre le fer tant qu’il est chaud – to strike while the iron is hot
Literally: to strike the iron while it is hot

boire comme un trou – to drink like a fish
Literally: to drink like a hole

casser les pieds à quelqu’un – to drive somebody nuts
Literally: to break somebody’s feet

casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un – to badmouth somebody behind somebody's back
Literally: to break sugar on somebody’s back

changer de crèmerie – to take one’s custom elsewhere
Literally: to go to another dairy shop

chat échaudé craint l'eau froide – once bitten, twice shy
Literally: a burned cat is afraid of cold water

chercher la petite bête – to split hairs
Literally: to look for the bug

courir sur le haricot de quelqu’un – to get on somebody’s nerves
Literally: to run on somebody’s bean

coûter les yeux de la tête – to cost an arm and a leg
Literally: to cost the eyes in your head

les doigts dans le nez – fingers in the nose
Literally: fingers in the nose

donner de la confiture aux cochons – to cast pearls before swine
Literally: to give marmelade to the pigs

en avoir ras-le bol – to be fed up to the back teeth
Literally: to have it very close to the edge of the bowl

en faire tout un fromage/plat – to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literally: to make a whole cheese/dish with it

enfoncer une porte ouverte – to whip a dead horse
Literally: to push an open door

engueuler quelqu'un comme du poisson pourri – to give somebody a rollicking
Literally: to tell somebody off as he/she was rotten fish

entrer quelque part comme dans un moulin – to waltz in somewhere as you please
Literally: to go inside a place as inside a mill

être le dindon de la farce – to be the butt of the joke
Literally: to be the turkey of stuffing

être au four et au moulin – to wear too many hats
Literally: to be at the same time at the oven and the mill

être long(ue) à la détente – to be slow on the uptake
Literally: to be slow on the trigger

être à l’ouest/à la ramasse – to run on empty
Literally: to be in the west/picked up

ne faire qu’une bouchée de quelqu’un – to wipe the floor with somebody
Literally: to make one bite of somebody

faire une queue de poisson – to cut somebody up
Literally: to make a fishtail

faire la grasse matinée – to have a lie-in
Literally: to make a fat morning

finir en queue de poisson – to fizzle out
Literally: to end like a fishtail

la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase – the final straw that breaks the camel’s back
Literally: the water drop that makes the vase overflow

l’habit ne fait pas le moine – you can't judge a book by its cover
Literally: clothes don’t make the monk

il faut souffrir pour être belle – no pain, no gain
Literally: one has to go through pain to be beautiful

jeter l’argent par les fenêtres – to poor money down the drain
Literally: to throw money out of the window

jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain – to throw the baby out with the bath water
Literally: to throw the baby away together with the bath water

jeter l’éponge – to throw in the towel
Literally: to throw the sponge away

mener quelqu’un en bateau – to lead someone up to the garden path
Literally: to take somebody to a boat ride

mettre la charrue avant les boeufs – put the cart before the horse
Literally: to put the cart before the oxen

mettre son grain de sel – to put in two cents
Literally: to put one’s grain of salt

ne pas être dans son assiette – to feel under the weather
Literally: not to be in your plate

ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuillère – not to go in with half measures
Literally: not to go with the back of the spoon

ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages – the lights are on but nobody’s home
Literally: not to have light at all floors

ne pas casser trois pattes à un canard – nothing to write home about
(Literally: not to break three legs at a duck

ne pas être sorti de l’auberge – not to be out of the woods
Literally: not to be out of the inn

pas avoir de quoi fouetter un chat – no need to get your knickers in a twist
Literally: not need to whip a cat

passer du coq à l’âne – to jump from pillar to post
Literally: to switch from the rooster to the donkey

passer l'arme à gauche – to kick the bucket
Literally: to pass your weapon on the left side

péter un câble – to blow a fuse
Literally: to break a wire

petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid – little strokes fell great oaks
Literally: little by little, the bird builds his nest

plumer quelqu'un – to take somebody to the cleaner's
Literally: to pluck somebody

poser un lapin – to stand someone up
Literally: to put a rabbit down

prendre ses jambes à son cou – to take your heels
Literally: to take your legs up to your neck

quand les poules auront des dents – when pigs fly
Literally: when chickens have teeth

à quelque chose malheur est bon – every cloud has a silver lining
Literally: misfortune has to be good for something

qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf – give somebody a inch and he/she will take a mile
Literally: someone who steals an egg steals an ox

raconter des salades – to spin a yarn
Literally: to tell salads

ramener sa fraise – to stick your oar in
Literally: to bring your strawberry back

rendre l'âme – to give up the ghost
Literally: to give the soul back

revenir à ses moutons – to get back on topic
Literally: to go back to one’s sheep

rouler quelqu’un dans la farine – to cook somebody's goose
Literally: to make somebody roll up in flour

se jeter dans la gueule du loup – to throw oneself in the lion's den
Literally: to throw oneself in the wolf's mouth

se mettre sur son 31 – to be dressed up to the nines
Literally: to put yourself on your 31

se serrer la ceinture – to tighten one’s belt
Literally: to tighten one’s belt

s’occuper de ses oignons – to mind your own business
Literally: to look after your onions

un tien vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Literally: one which is yours is better than two that will be yours

tomber dans le panneau – to fall into the trap
Literally: to fall into the sign

tomber dans les pommes – to faint
Literally: to fall in the apples

tourner au vinaigre – to turn sour
Literally: to turn into vinegar

traîner quelqu’un dans la boue – to drag somebody’s name in the mud
Literally: to drag somebody in the mud

vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué – to count your chickens before they hatch
Literally: to sell the bear's skin before it chats been killed

If we missed one of your favorite French idioms, don't hesitate to email us at info@vidalingua.com to let us know.

Eager for more French expressions? Here are Romantic French Words and Sayings for Valentine's Day.
All these expressions and millions more are available for free on PhraseMates for iPhone and Android.

Christine Ducos-Restagno
Lead French Linguist