You’ll no doubt be aware that there are a few colourful expressions that French speakers absolutely love to drop into conversation, but which foreign learners of the language often find impenetrable.
We are, of course, talking about idioms, those turns of phrase that add a touch of whimsy and are vital if you want to sound like a native. Some of them can be understood by comparing them to other languages. Others, however, need a bit of explanation, which just goes to show how much French lessons and French culture go hand in hand.
What are some of the most popular French idioms? What do they mean exactly, and in what situations can they be used? How can you tell which expressions are informal? Are there any tips for learning more French idioms?
Ça marche !
These phrases are used by French speakers when they’re talking and often in informal contexts. “Ça marche” is used when you want to say that something is working properly, or when you want an informal way to express your agreement. For example: “j’ai fait tomber mon téléphone portable et il ne marche plus” – “I’ve dropped my mobile phone and it doesn’t work any more.” Or if a friend asks you if you want to go watch a movie this evening, you can reply: “Ça marche pour ce soir !” – “Yes, this evening works for me!”
Ça fait un bail !
“J’ai croisé mon ancien collègue de travail dans la rue, ça faisait un bail que je ne l’avais pas vu !” – “I bumped into my old work colleague on the street – I haven’t seen him in ages!” If you decide to take a French course in France, it is quite possible that you’ll hear this expression used in a conversation. In its strict sense, un bail is a lease or rental contract that often covers an extended period, so that’s why this phrase is now used to talk about an event that happened a long time ago.
Jeter un œil
Rest assured, there is no need to take this expression literally! No one is throwing any eyeballs anywhere! Jeter un œil simply means to examine something quickly and discreetly, to glance at something, much like “to cast an eye” in English. “Il n’arrêtait pas de jeter un œil à sa montre car le cours de mathématiques lui semblait interminable” – “He kept glancing at his watch, because it seemed to him that the maths lessons were going on forever.”
Se prendre un râteau
Have you ever accidentally stepped on a rake (râteau) lying in your garden? If so, you’ll know that it’s not a very pleasant experience... This phrase is an informal one, used when someone that you have tried to win over rejects your advances (in English, people might say “knocks you back” or “gives you the brush-off”). For those who prefer to use more respectable language, the equivalent formal expression is “se faire éconduire” – to be turned away or rejected.
Raconter des salades
What’s the link between misleading words and a salad? As everyone knows, a mixed salad is a selection of ingredients which, together, make up a whole that is easy to enjoy. In addition, you can throw a bit of everything in a salad and dress it as you please to tempt foodies. So figuratively, the expression describes the act of intentionally telling tall tales!
Ne pas être sorti de l’auberge
When someone encounters a problem that he or she cannot resolve, or when a situation is especially complicated, the person involved might say that he or she “n’est pas sorti(e) de l’auberge”, meaning that they are “not out of the woods yet”. The French phrase stems from the fact that the word auberge has associations with the concept of a prison or dungeon in fifteenth-century criminal slang.
S’occuper de ses oignons
French people certainly aren’t lacking in imagination when it comes to using similar expressions! When someone is meddling in your affairs and wants to interfere in your private life, you can retort: “Occupe-toi de tes oignons !” – “Mind your own business!” (literally “you worry about your onions”). We can pretty much consider this phrase one of the ten curiosities about the French language. Of course, it’s a very sharp, familiar turn of phrase, and should be used with caution...
Donner sa langue au chat
French speakers are huge fans of idioms featuring animals. You might “donnez votre langue au chat” (literally “give your tongue to the cat”, but not to be confused with the “cat got your tongue” in English) when asking someone to tell you the answer to a puzzle or a general knowledge question you’ve been asked (in other words, when you “give up”). The expression originated in the nineteenth century with French novelist George Sand, who believed that cats were our confidants and knew how to keep secrets. “Mettre quelque chose dans l’oreille du chat” (literally “to put something in the cat’s ear”) means “entrusting confidential information” to someone.
Monter sur ses grands chevaux
“D’abord calme, mon voisin a commencé à monter sur ses grands chevaux quand nous avons parlé de politique” – “He was calm at first, but then my neighbour began to get on his high horse when we talked about politics.” Much like the similar English expression, someone who “monte sur ses grand chevaux” (“climbs on his big horses”) loses their temper for no reason during a conversation, and often becomes haughty. Like a fiery steed, they rear at the slightest thing.
The first tip that comes to mind is to take a trip to France! The teachers at the Centre International d’Antibes will help you to learn some authentic idioms that are used in everyday life. You can put them into practice when you chat to locals, and knowing them will make it easier for you to understand people. Try to use these phrases in the right context, don’t translate them word for word, and categorise them by theme as you come across them. Song lyrics and the dialogue in films and TV series are full of such expressions. Finally, newspapers and the media in general are not short of colourful phrases of all kinds.
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