Hilarious French Expressions

French expressions and idioms are a great way to sound more natural and to better understand French culture

But they can also be extremely confusing, and sometimes funny if you translate them literally

Here is a selection of 10 common French idioms you need to become familiar with. Each French idiom comes with its translation, English counterpart and explanation.

  1. Avoir un poil dans la main

Literal translation : to have a hair in the hand.

Meaning : to be lazy.

This French expression means a person is extremely lazy. So lazy in fact that he/she let a hair grow in her/his hand.

 How to use “avoir un poil dans la main” ?

Il a un poil dans la main.

He is very lazy.

  1. Poser un lapin

Literal translation : to put a rabbit.

Meaning : to stand someone up.

When you are waiting for a person who never shows up, you can say that the person ” vous a posé unlapin“.

How to use “poser un lapin“?

Il m’a posé un lapin lors de notre premier rendez-vous.

He stood me up on our first date.

  1. Ne pas être sorti de l’auberge

Literal translation : to not be out of the inn.

Meaning : to face a complicated problem.

When you are not out of the inn, it means you are facing lots of problems and won’t solve them any time soon.

How to use this French expression?

Il n’est pas sorti de l’auberge.

He is not out of the inn.

It will take a while before he gets rid of his problems.

  1. Avoir le cafard

Literal translation : to have the cockroach.

Meaning : to be depressed.

No, it doesn’t mean that your bed is full of cockroaches, it means that you are depressed.

This expression was first used by Baudelaire in  “LesFleurs du Mal” in 1857 and has been quite popular ever since.

How to use “avoir le cafard” ?

Aujourd’hui j’ai le cafard.

Today I am depressed.

  1. Chercher la petite bête

Literal translation : to look for the little beast.

Meaning : to always look for something to complain about/ splitting hairs.

We all know someone who always finds something to complain about and pays attention to the most insignificant details. In French we say that this person “cherche la petite bête”.

How to use the French expression “chercher la petite bête” ?

Il cherche toujours la petite bête, c’est énervant.
He is always splitting hairs, it’s irritating.

  1. Donner un coup de main

Literal translation : to give a knock of hand.

Meaning : to give a helping hand.

“Coup de main” means “helping hand” which immediately makes the expression easier to understand. And very similar expression to English in the end.

How to  “donner un coup de main”?

Peux-tu me donner un coup de main s’il te plaît ?

Can you help me out please?

  1. Faire un froid de canard

Literal translation : to do a cold of duck.

Meaning : to be extremely cold.

In winter, when it’s very cold, ducks go away from lakes and are therefore exposed to hunters. So “un froid de canard” is an extremely cold and hostile weather.

How to use “faire un froid de canard”?

Il fait un froid de canard ici en hiver.

It’s very cold here in winter.

  1. Donner sa langue au chat

Literal translation : to give one’s tongue to the cat.

Meaning : I have no idea/I give up.

This French expression is used to say you don’t know about something and are unable to give an answer.

Back in the 19 th century, cats were considered the guardians of secrets. and their words (that is if your cat can speak :D) therefore had a considerable value. So when you give your tongue to the cat, you expect it to give you the answer to a question you are unable to answer.

How to use “donner sa langue au chat”?

Marc : Tu ne devineras jamais qui j’ai vu dans la rue aujourd’hui !

You will never guess who I saw in the street today!

Martin : Le facteur ?

The postman?

Marc : Non, quelqu’un que tu connais !
No, someone you know!

Marc ; Alors là, je donne ma langue au chat.

Well, I have no idea.

Incapable de répondre à la question du professeur, Julien a donné sa langue au chat.

Unable to answer the teacher’s question, Julien gave up.

  1. Avoir la gueule de bois

“To have the wooden face”.

Ever drank a little too much alcohol? Then you know what a wooden face feels like since “geule de bois” is the translation of hangover.

The expression comes from the fact that your mouth is dry like wood when you are hangover. Sounds familiar?

How to use “avoir la gueule de bois“?

Après avoir fait la fête hier soir, je me suis réveillé avec une gueule de bois terrible.
After partying yesterday night, I woke up with a terrible hangover.

10. Être sur son 31

“To be on your 31”.

Like for many others, the origin of this expression is unknown. However, it could come from the word “trentain” which used to refer to a luxurious tissue.

To be on your 31 therefore means that you are wearing your most beautiful clothes, that you are elegant.

“Se mettre sur son 31″ is also used sometimes.

How to use the expression “être sur son 31″?

Wahou, tu es sur ton 31 aujourd’hui!

Wow, you are very elegant today!

Oui, j’ai un rendez-vous.

Yes, I have a date.


Want to study more French expressions in real-life contexts? Contact Caroline to know more about her French courses in Paris.

her french language courses are are organized for all levels : beginner students who wants to rapidly develop their skills; intermediate learners who already have some knowledge or French, and advanced-level students who need a refresher and want to brush up on their French communication skills.

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