French expressions translated to English

When socializing with French people, you’ll hear French expressions that you’ve never heard before. I will share my favorite French expressions with you. The French idioms I picked are commonly used, so go ahead and try incorporating them in your conversations.

Each French expression is translated and explained in English with its English equivalent when it exists.

Appeler un chat un chat

meaning: to be blunt

literal translation: to call a cat a cat

Elle n’a pas peur d’appeler un chat un chat.
She is blunt.

English expression: to call a spade a spade

Avaler la pilule

meaning: to accept something unpleasant

literal translation: to swallow the pill

Il l’a quittée sans prévenir et elle a du mal à avaler la pilule.
He left her unexpectedly and she’s having a hard time dealing with it.

English expression: to deal with something

Une fois n’est pas coutume

meaning: contrary to what is usual, for once

literal translation: once is not a custom

Une fois n’est pas coutume, je vais commencer le repas par le dessert.
For once, I’ll eat dessert first.

English expression: once in a blue moon

Ne pas avoir froid aux yeux

meaning: to be fearless, audacious

literal translation: to not be cold in the eyes

Elle n’a pas froid aux yeux quand il s’agit de demander une augmentation.
She is fearless when it comes to asking for a raise.

English expression: to not be fazed

Use Send my bag when relocating to France.

Faire des pieds et des mains

meaning: to do everything possible

literal translation: to do feet and hands

Il a fait des pieds et des mains pour obtenir un rendez-vous.
He did all he could to get an appointment.

English expression: to bend over backwards

Dire à quelqu’un ses quatre vérités

meaning: to tell someone his flaws

literal translation: to tell someone his four truths

Elle lui a dit ses quatre vérités et puis elle est partie.
She told him everything she hates about him and then she left.

English expression: to give someone a piece of your mind

Poser un lapin

meaning: to stand up someone

literal translation: to drop off a rabbit

On avait rendez-vous à 11h du matin devant la mairie mais il m’a posé un lapin.
We planned to meet at 11am in front of city hall but he stood me up.

English expression: leave a comment if you have a suggestion as I cannot think of one. Thanks!

Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs

meaning: to do things in the wrong order

literal translation: to put the plow before the oxen

Ne mets pas la charrue avant les bœufs et commence par gagner de l’argent avant de rêver à ta future maison!
Start by making money before fantasizing about purchasing a new house!

English expression: to put the cart before the horse

Prendre ses jambes à son cou

meaning: to flee

literal translation: to take his legs to his neck

Je n’ai pas cherché à comprendre, j’ai pris mes jambes à mon cou.
I didn’t try to figure it out, I immediately fled the scene.

English expression: to run like a bat out of hell

Avoir un caractère de cochon

meaning: to be bad-tempered

literal translation: to have a pig’s temper

Je l’évite parce qu’il a un caractère de cochon.
I am avoiding him because he is bad-tempered.

English expression: to be pig-headed

Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre

meaning: to overestimate what you can eat or what you can do

literal translation: to have eyes bigger than your belly

Elle ne finit jamais son assiette parce qu’elle a les yeux plus gros que le ventre.
She never finishes her plate because she takes too much food.

English expression: to bite off more than one can chew or to have eyes bigger than your stomach.

Prendre son mal en patience

meaning: to accept something unpleasant with resignation

literal translation: to take the bad with patience

Il y avait deux heures d’attente alors je me suis assise et j’ai pris mon mal en patience.
There was a two-hour wait so I sat down and waited patiently.

English expression: to suck it up

Avoir la tête sur les épaules

meaning: to be well-balanced, reasonable

literal translation: to have your head on your shoulders

Je peux compter sur lui, il a la tête sur les épaules.
I can count on him, he is well-balanced.

English expression: to have a good head on your shoulders

Donner froid dans le dos

meaning: to scare

literal translation: to make you feel cold in your back

J’ai vu un film sur le réchauffement climatique et ça m’a donné froid dans le dos.
I watched a movie on global warming and it was very scary.

English expression: to make someone’s blood run cold

Perdre son sang froid

meaning: to lose it

literal translation: to lose your cold blood

Il a perdu son sang froid et il s’est mis à crier.
He lost his cool and started yelling.

English expression: to lose your cool

Casser sa pipe

meaning: to die

literal translation: to break your tobacco pipe

Il a cassé sa pipe à l’âge de 90 ans.
He died at age 90.

English expression: to cash in one’s chips

I hope you had fun learning these French expressions. How about honing your French slang?

Nathalie Nahmani

About Nathalie Nahmani

Nathalie is the creator of ma French Life. She moved back to France after living in Los Angeles for 20 years. She writes practical articles to help expats in France. Nathalie lives with her family in the French Alps near Grenoble.

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6 thoughts on “French expressions translated to English”

  1. Do the french still use “chouette” for “cool”? I was in France in the 70’s as a junior year abroad student. We used to laugh about people saying, “C’est vachement chouette!”, which translates to cowly owly.

    • Hi Denise,

      People don’t use “chouette” as much as before but it’s still in use.
      Like you said, “cool” is much more common nowadays.
      I never thought about the English translation..that’s funny!

      Thank you for your comment Denise!

  2. I love these.
    For Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre, we would say her eyes are bigger than her stomach, that is, an almost direct translation.
    Similarly, for Avoir la tête sur les épaules, we can say he has a level head on his shoulder or (I think) has a good head on his shoulders.
    For Prendre son mal en patience you could say, I sucked it up (and waited). That’s a little slangy but I think it works.
    For Prendre ses jambes à son cou, I would say *ran* like a bat out of hell.
    I’m really stuck on Avoir un caractère de cochon but will try to think of something. Again, thank you!

  3. American equivalent to “ne pas avoir froid aux yeux”….
    – she never flinches when asking…;
    – it never phases her to ask….
    – he never bats an eye

    “Faire des pieds et des mains”:
    – to bend over backwards.
    – to go overboard helping s.o.

    “Dire à qqn ses quatre vérités “:
    – to let someone have it;
    – to give someone a dressing down;
    – to go in guns blazing.
    – to chew someone out;
    – to tear someone a new asshole.
    – to give someone a piece of your mind;
    – to read someone the riot act.

    “Poser un lapin”:
    – to leave someone high and dry.

    “Mettre une charrue avant les bœufs”:
    – to put the cart before the horse

    “Prendre ses jambes à son cou”:
    – to leave like a bat out of hell;

    Keep up the great work on your website, Nathalie ! I posted a link to your website on a Facebook group yesterday, because I found your articles to be well-written, well-researched, and up to date. Your stats should see a nice jump 😊

    • Hey Janice,
      I knew I could count on you!
      I am glad to see you are back as I was starting to wonder about you 🙂
      Thank you so much for your help, I will update the article right away!
      I did see a big jump in my stats yesterday and I was wondering where it came from, thank you so much!
      Bonne année 2022! I wish you Love and happiness!

      Nathalie

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