For foreign language learners, a surefire way to demonstrate fluency is to throw in an expression or two when you’re speaking or writing. French has no shortage of fun and unique sayings, many of which are particularly useful in everyday life and can encompass a wide range of emotions and situations that aren’t quite as conveniently expressed in other languages.
Here are 11 expressions in French with no English equivalent that are sure to impress your Francophone friends.
Literally: To jump from the rooster to the donkey
You’d use this expression when you’re talking to someone and he or she moves rapidly from one subject to another with no transition in between. You could say that your friend “saute du coq à l’âne” when she starts talking about her upcoming exam but then mentions her new puppy in the same breath: “Ça n’a rien à voir, tu sautes du coq à l’âne.”
Literally: Those who love well punish well
A friend is someone who is nice to you all the time, but a best friend is someone who isn’t afraid of good-natured insults and subtle ribbing from time to time. When you make fun of your friend for being a terrible cook after he burns dinner, and he’s offended by your teasing, tell him, “T’inquiète je rigole, qui aime bien châtie bien.”
Literally: to swallow garter snakes
Sometimes discretion is key in dealing with certain people and certain situations, and it’s better to hold your tongue even when you have the urge to speak out. In politics, a member of Congress might personally have certain convictions that go against what other members of her party are telling the media, but she might avoid speaking out so that there is still a sense of party unity; it can be said that she “avale des couleuvres.”
Literally: to look at each other like earthenware dogs
There’s a certain look that two people who distrust each other get when they make eye contact. The French have likened this facial expression to that of earthenware dogs: cold and unmoving, yet still menacing and even hostile. When two business rivals compete for the same lucrative deal, “Les deux ennemis se regardaient en chiens de faïence.”
Literally: to come as a tourist
This expression applies whenever someone approaches a task without caring about the results, since the outcome does not matter to him or her. If a student has an upcoming test that doesn’t affect her grade, she might not be motivated to study as much, if at all, as she would if the test counted more. When a peer asks you why she hasn’t been studying very much, you can say, “Pour elle, l’examen n’était pas important, donc elle est venue en touriste.”
Literally: those who steal an egg, steal an ox
The expression “Qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf” suggests that the French ascribe to the philosophy that people who get away with a seemingly minor infractions would be encouraged to attempt increasingly serious crimes. If you see a child pocket a candy bar at a grocery store, even if it seems to be a small theft, the French would encourage you to do something about it: “Il ne faut pas permettre aux enfants de faire ça : qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf.”
Literally: to have all the fire all the flame
Some people are so enthusiastic about an activity or pursuit that they are willing to pursue it to the very end despite any difficulties or setbacks with an admirable persistence and passion. If your coworker stays up all night to finish working out a bug in her code, you can compliment her efforts during the morning meeting by saying, “Quand elle travaille elle est toujours à fond, elle est tout feu tout flamme.”
Literally: to wait at the corner
“Attendre au tournant” describes the wait to witness the failure; whether it is out of a desire to be prepared for the failure or out of sheer pettiness is up for debate. When a colleague who has a reputation for botching important negotiations is put in charge of a contract involving a major client, you could whisper to your cubicle neighbor, “On a l’impression qu’il ne réussira pas, on l’attend au tournant.”
Literally: it’s not made for dogs
This expression applies to anything that is useful and emphasizes the fact that these useful objects exist for a reason and should be used. When you haven’t cleaned your room in a while, your French host mother might hand you a broom or a vacuum and say, “Ce n’est pas fait pour les chiens.”
Say you’re looking for a room to rent in Paris and you’ve found one that fits most of your requirements, but you’re hesitating to take it since you still have two weeks left before you have to move and you think you might come across something better. Your Parisian friend might advise you that it’s better to take what you can get now rather than wait for something better that’s not guaranteed: “Il ne faut pas attendre, un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras.”
Literally: advisors are not the payers
If you’re driving you and a friend to dinner and you can’t find parking, your friend may tell you just to park illegally. Considering that it’s your car that would be towed and you who would pay the ticket, you can tell her, “Oui, c’est facile quand tu me dis ça, mais les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs.” This is not to dismiss her idea, but rather to say that, because she doesn’t necessarily have a stake in the consequences if things don’t go as planned, she’s not in the best position to do a cost-benefit analysis of the situation.
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