Idiomatic Expressions in French

Recently I was walking through a light festival called, conveniently, the Festival of Lights when, among the candy cane, fir tree, wreath, and dove designs, I saw a dinosaur display. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” I said to my friend, who was walking alongside me. I’m no one’s uncle and there wasn’t a monkey in sight, but I did find the display, with its lit-up orange contours of a dinosaur that had a bobbing head and swishing tail, accompanied by a howling sound track, particularly surprising at a holiday festival. The idiomatic expression I used has been an expression of astonishment since the early twentieth century, in the wake of the 1925 Scopes Trial, also known as the “Monkey Trial”. This highly publicized trial of John Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee high-school teacher, was the result of Scopes teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to his class, in violation of a state law that banned teachings in publicly funded schools which contradicted Biblical accounts of human origins. How fitting that I uttered a phrase that was sarcastically used by creationists in the wake of the Scopes Trial to react to a dinosaur. I’ve tried to think of a French version of that phrase, but have only been able to come up with “Mais, dis donc !”

This leads me to my next observation, that idiomatic expressions are specific to a language, as they come out of a particular context, are relevant to a certain history, and reflect particular patterns of speech. That said, I have come up with a list of idiomatic expressions in French and their English equivalents. Where there are no equivalent idioms, I have given an approximate English phrase.

Continuing the reference to monkeys and dinosaurs, our first and largest group of idiomatic expressions is inspired by fauna, followed by expressions relating to flora and human anatomy.

Fauna

French
English
1. avoir la chair de poule to have goosebumps
2. chercher la petite bête to nit-pick
3. donner sa langue au chat to throw in the towel, to give up
4. être comme un poisson dans l’eau to fit right in
5. faire l’âne to play dumb
6. faire l’autruche bury one’s head in the sand
7. parler français comme une vache espagnole to speak French badly
8. faire un temps de chien to be nasty out
9. pleuvoir des grenouilles to rain cats and dogs
10. poser un lapin à quelqu’un to stand somebody up
11. quand les poules auront des dents when pigs fly, when *heck* freezes over (except in English one usually uses another four-letter word that begins with he)
12. revenir à ses moutons to get back on track
13. un froid de canard freezing cold

Some of the above expressions are similar to their English equivalents, such as the first, while others are quite different, as we see with the last. #5 shows similar ideas about donkeys for both francophones and anglophones – just think about how dumb the ham actor Bottom becomes when Puck puts a donkey’s head on him in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. #6 in each language actually comes from a similar idea, the belief that ostriches bury their heads in the sand (it seems they do not actually do that, but do build nests for their eggs in the sand and turn them frequently with their beaks). I hesitated to include #7, but only for a bit, since one only has to think of Pepe le Pew’s thick French accent and Frenchisms to not be self-conscious about one’s own efforts in French. The reference to dogs in #8 includes the phrase de chien, which is used to indicate excess. There are many variations for #9, including poissons. Animal images for heavy rain seem to be quite prevalent in both English and French, but the frog image is a Biblical reference to one of the ten plagues of Egypt in the book of Exodus, which describes an influx of frogs into the country. #12 dates back to a medieval play, Le Farce de Maître Pathelin, in which a plaintiff, facing both his defendant and his defendant’s lawyer in court, begins to confound the fraudulent actions that both have committed toward him, one involving sheep and the other involving sheets. The judge, who is hearing the case concerning sheep, urges the plaintiff to come back to the matter at hand, saying, “Revenons à nos moutons !”

Flora

French
English
14. donner du grain à moudre to give food for thought, to give grist to the mill
15. faire l’œuf to be a blockhead
16. mettre son grain de sel to give one’s two cents
17. raconter des salades to spin fairy tales, to tell fairy stories
18. sentir le sapin to have one foot in the grave, to have a graveyard cough, to not be long for this world
19. tomber dans les pommes to faint, to pass out
20. tondre des œufs to be a cheapskate

#14, the first on this list, gives the impression of working on something steadily and methodically, which is exactly what happens on the France Culture’s radio show that has the same name. This show addresses various topics from different perspectives and discusses them over the course of forty minutes or so. Notice the contrast between the shapes alluded to in the French and English versions of #15. Eggs also appear in #20 – it’s true that the French use a lot of eggs in their cuisine and that this could be a great influence on the expressions they use in everyday life. #18 seems to be a reference to the type of wood used for a coffin, wood of the fir tree.

Human Anatomy

French
English
21. faire la tête to sulk
22. avoir un mot sur le bout de la langue to have a word at the tip of your tongue
23. casser les pieds à quelqu’un to annoy someone to no end, to get on someone’s nerves
24. avoir la main verte to have a green thumb
25. se lever du pied gauche to get up on the wrong side of the bed
26. avoir le cœur sur la main to be generous
27. partir les pieds devant to die
28. avoir le pied dans le plat to put your foot in your mouth

The reference to a head in #21 alludes to the way in which the word tête is used in French, which can refer to a person’s facial expression as well as for the body part. #22 is strikingly similar in French and English.  #24 is also similar in reference to the green color associated with plants. The body part of the English version, although not exactly the same as the French is located in the area designated by the French version. #25 is also similar in both languages, referring to a bad mood as being a frame of mind that lasts from the moment one rises from bed. I’m not sure why death would have someone going feet first, as we see in #27, unless it’s a reversal of the way many of us enter the world, which is head first. #28 also seems very similar, just that in French your foot is on flatware designed to hold what goes into your mouth, while in English the foot goes directly into the mouth.

With these idiomatic expressions in mind, you will know about the meaning of cold ducks, falling into apples, and rising on your left foot. Of course, all of these things exist in the literal sense, but their appearance in what seem to be completely different contexts will no longer come out of left field, once you are familiar with the expressions they are a part of and how these are used. Of course, given enough context, you could probably figure out what they mean, even without prior exposure. You were, after all, not born yesterday.


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