21 French Idioms that only make sense if you’re French

funny French expression / idioms that don't make sense if you're not French
funny French expression / idioms that don't make sense if you're not French

Do you “speak French like a Spanish cow?” Unless you’re a native or fluent French speaker, you probably have no idea what that means. Here are some funny French idioms and expressions involving animals and bugs explained: What they mean, literally and figuratively, and their equivalent idiomatic expression in English.

What is an Idiom?

Idioms are commonly used expressions and figures of speech whose meanings don’t always relate to the literal meaning of their words; especially when translated word for word into another language. 

French Idioms that involve Animals and bugs

There are thousands of French idioms, too many to list here.

I’ve selected French idioms involving animals and insects. 

1) It’s raining like pissing cows

French Idiom: Il pleut comme vache qui pisse

French Idiom: Il pleut comme vache qui pisse: It's raining a lot or it's raining cats and dogs.

The colourful French idiom “It’s raining like pissing cows,” first appeared around the middle of the 19th century.

It vividly illustrates heavy rainfall by giving you a mental image of a cow peeing which is a lot, especially compared to humans and other small farm animals. 

Is this a strange French expression?

Not any stranger than the expression, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” 

Example: je prends mon parapluie car il pleut comme vache qui pisse! (I’m taking my umbrella because it’s raining like cows who piss. 

Closest or similar English expression:

  • It’s pissing down.
  • It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock
  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • It’s pouring outside.
  • It’s raining buckets.

2) Cry like a cow

French Idiom: Pleurer comme un vache

Another French idiom that doesn’t mean what you think it does. Like the cow that pisses, a person that cries like a cow is someone who cries a lot. 

Closest or similar English expression:

  • To cry a river
  • Cry like a baby

3) Speak French like a Spanish cow

French Idiom: Parler Français comme une vache espagnole!

Happy baby calf sticking tongue out

Saying someone speaks French like a Spanish cow is an insult because it implies that the person speaks French badly, to the point where it’s difficult to understand and painful to listen to.

Example: Janet is learning French, but she still speaks like a Spanish cow. OUCH! So harsh!

Closest English expression:

  • To butcher a language.
  • To murder a language

French idioms and expressions involving poultry

4) When chickens have teeth

French Idiom: Quand les poules auront des dents

Just like the English expression “when pig’s fly,” this expression implies something that’s impossible or difficult to do or attain, but it can also mean that it will never happen.

Closest English expression:

  • When pigs fly.
  • That’ll be the day.
  • Over my dead body.

5) To be like a hen who found a knife

French Idiom: Être comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau

French Idiom / French expression: To be like a hen who found a knife (Être comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau)

 

Common barnyard hens are not known for their intelligence. So would a hen know what to do if it came across a knife as it was pecking away?  

Using the French idiomatic expression that “a person is a hen who found a knife” implies that the person is clueless or has no idea what to do. 

Closest meaning in English:

  • To be at a complete loss
  • Lost at sea
  • Dumb as a post
  • Dumb as a rock

6) You’re a wet chicken

French idiom: Vous êtes une poule mouillée

Get your head out of the gutter. This isn’t some raunchy French expression

This old French idiom has been around since the 17th century, and it’s not very flattering. If you say, “stop being such a wet chicken” in French to someone, it’s like calling them a coward. 

Everyone knows that chickens and hens are not known for being very courageous. They run away as soon as you approach them. But something I didn’t know was that some chickens and hens don’t come in out of the rain. 

Closest English expression:

  • You’re a chicken!
  • Like a dear in headlights
  • You’re spineless

We needed a sheep idiom, so here it is

7) Let’s get back to the sheep

French Idom: Revenons à nos moutons

No, this isn’t some weird sexual reference involving sheep.

When you say, “let’s get back to our sheep,” it means you want to get back to the task at hand.

This expression originated from a fifteenth-century comedy called “La Farce de Maître Pathelin.” Guillaume brings two cases before a judge involving sheets and sheep. During the trial, Guillaume gets confused between the two different cases and ultimately confuses the judge too. The judge then tries to get back to the case about the sheep by repeatedly saying. “let us get back to the sheep,” “revonons à nos moutons.”

Ever since, this saying has stuck, and to this day, people use this expression to mean, let’s get back on track, or let’s get back on topic. [source]

Closest English expression:

  • Let’s get back on track.

8) Five-legged sheep

French Idom: Mouton à cinq patte

Five-legged sheep are extremely rare and difficult to find. And that’s exactly what this French expression means. If something is like a five-legged sheep, it means it’s impossible to attain, find or do. 

Closest English expression:

  • Needle in a haystack
  • Scarce as hen’s teeth
  • Asking for the moon

Other farm animal French idioms

9) He who steals an egg will steal an ox

French Idiom: Qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf.

Simply put, if someone is willing to steal a tiny egg, they’ll eventually steal the ox too. 

Closest English expression:

  • Give an inch, and they take a mile.

10) To be friends like pigs

French Idiom: Être copains comme cochons

This confusing French idiom means that you are very close friends.

Closest English expression:

  • Thick as thieves

11) Go from rooster to donkey

French Idiom: Passer du coq à l’âne

To go from rooster to donkey means that you jump aimlessly from subject to subject. 

Closest English expression:

  • All over the place

12) To put down a rabbit

French Idiom: Poser un lapin

To put down a rabbit is a very common French idiom with a surprising meaning.  

It means that you stood someone up without letting them know. 

Closest English expression:

  • To stand someone up
  • No show

Ne pas se rendre à un rendez-vous

French idioms & expressions involving cats

13) Give one’s tongue to the cat

French Idiom: Donnner sa langue au chat

Man acting out French idiom: Give one's tongue to the cat.Donnner sa langue au chat

This French idiom might sound like the English phrase “Has the cat got your tongue?” However, it has nothing to do with it.

To give one’s tongue to the cat actually means to give up or throw in the towel.

Example: You’re in a car with the kids who ask “can you guess how many fingers I’m holding behind my back”? Before you can answer, they say, “Alors, tu donnes ta langue au chat? (do you give your tongue to the cat?). In other words, “do you give up”? 

Closest English expression:

  • Throw in the towel
  • To give up
  • To give in

14) Call a cat a cat

French Idom: Appeler un chat un chat

The French expression “call a cat a cat” means to speak your mind and truthfully.

Closest English expression:

  • Call a spade a spade.
  • Speak frankly.
  • Don’t sugarcoat it

15) Dogs don’t make cats

French Idiom: Les chiens ne font pas des chats

A dog will give birth to dogs, and cats will give birth to cats. 

This French idiom is a clever way to say that children resemble their parents in terms of personality and character. 

Closest English expression:

  • The apple does not fall far from the tree.
  • Like father like son.
  • Like mother like daughter.

16) To have other cats to whip

French idiom: Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

This oddly funny French idiom means that you have more important or better things to do.

Example: I can’t be bothered to do my homework; I have other cats to whip.

Closest English expression:

  • To have bigger fish to fry

French idioms that BUG you!

17) To have the cockroach

French Idiom: Avoir le cafard

When someone has the cockroach, it means they are very sad or depressed.

I found many explanations for how this French expression came about, but the one that interested me the most was the one about the Foreign Legion.

When bored legionnaires became depressed under their isolated conditions and would shoot cockroaches. Later this depression became known as “avoir le cafard”  (to have the cockroach).

Closest English expression:

  • To be down in the dumps
  • To be down.

18) To look for lice

French Idiom: Chercher des poux

Oh, stop looking for lice!!! This French expression means you complain too much or find fault in the smallest of things.

Closest English expression:

  • You nitpick. (A nit is a small lice egg.)

19) Which fly bit you?

French Idiom: Quelle mouche t’a piqué

Dating back to the 17th century, people likened the involuntary burst of action from the bite of an insect to that of someone who was angry. So when someone is angry or in a bad mood, you can ask them what fly bit you.

Example: You’ve yelled at me four times now. What fly bit you?

Closest English expression:

  • What crawled up your ass (and died)?
  • What’s bugging you?
  • What’s eating you?

20) Take the fly

French Idiom: Prendre la mouche

This French idiom is very similar to the French expression “what fly bit you?” Except that this one implies someone is very angry for no good reason.

Closest English expression:

  • To fly off the handle.

French expressions involving fish

21) Make fried Merlin eyes

French Idom: Faire les yeux de merlan frit

pinterest image of French expression "make eyes like fried merlan" or make fried merlan eyes"

Merlan is the name of a popular fish in France. In English, it’s called whiting or hake fish. 

If you’ve ever pan-fried a whole fish, you’ve probably noticed that the mouth is usually wide open, and the eyes look like white marbles that are about to pop out of their sockets. 

Not a pretty sight, is it? Don’t worry; this is not some strange French fish eyeball recipe. 

The French expression, to make fried Merlan eyes, means that you are looking at someone with ridiculously big sappy saucer eyes in an overly exaggerated way, usually looking up. Before the 19th century, this expression used to be to “make fried carp eyes,” probably due to the fact that it was a more popular fish at the time. 

Closest English expression:

  • Puppy dog eyes

You might be interested in reading about April fish, the French version of April fool’s day. 

Wrapping up these funny French idioms

French expressions don’t always translate well to English. 

But learning French Idioms not only helps you sound more fluent in French but can also help you out in social situations.

They also give you a little insight into the cultural nuances of French life. 

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

 

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