If you know the basics of French grammar, pronunciation, and basic French conversation, you’ve earned a fun topic as a treat! It’s time for French idioms, colloquialisms, and adages (in short, French expressions that may not be covered in classes and are not intuitive to non-native speakers).
These fun French phrases will help you understand native speakers better and sound more authentic when you speak. That makes them great additions to your list of French phrases for travel.
Many language learners are all too familiar with dialogue in a textbook, audio lesson, or app that sounds more like a computer than a person. Sprinkle these common French phrases into your conversations so native speakers won’t think you sound like a robot.
Ah la vache
Literal translation: “Oh the cow”
Usage: Ah la vache is a versatile interjection. People use it to express surprise, disappointment, or admiration much like “oh my god!” in English. Other similar expressions include oh la la, ah zut, and dis donc.
Literal translation: Roughly, “by the nose”
Usage: Pif is a crude slang word for nose. Doing something by the nose is guessing or estimating. Au pif can be used when you would use “about”, “roughly”, or “at random.”
Examples: Il y a vingt-cinq gens, au pif (there are about twenty five people) J’ai choisi le repas au pif (I chose the meal at random)
Au petit bonheur la chance
Literal translation: “To little happiness, luck”
Usage: The rough English equivalent of this expression is “with a little (bit of) luck” and it is used similarly.
Example: Au petit bonheur la chance, la promotion serait de moi (With a little luck the promotion will be mine)
Literal translation: “Brief”
Usage: Bref is another filler word. French speakers use it the way English speakers use fillers like “anyway” “basically” “in short” and “in a nutshell”. You may also see en bref in writing to introduce a conclusion.
Examples: Bref, tu me comprends? (Anyway, do you understand me?) Bref, j’ai eu un mauvais jour (In short, I had a bad day)
Connaître la musique
Literal translation: “To know the music”
Usage: The English equivalent to this expression is “know the score.” The link makes sense when you consider that the “score” is referring to music, not sports.
Literal translation: “Bad shame”
Usage: Mauvaise honte is not a particularly powerful variety of shame. It is performative modesty or pretending to have a low sense of self-worth. Like when a friend fishes for compliments with self-deprecation.
Literal translation: “Not important what”
Usage: N’importe quoi has three main uses that are tangentially related to each other. The first is an alternative to “anything.” The second is a dismissive “whatever.” The third signifies “a whole lot of nothing”
Examples: Je ferais n’importe quoi pour toi (I would do anything for you) N’importe quoi, maman! (Whatever, mom!) Tu as dit que tu as fini le projet, mais tu as fait n’importe quoi! (You said you finished the project, but you did a whole lot of nothing!)
Literal translation: “When same”
Usage: Quand même is a filler word used the way English speakers use “all the same”, “in any case”, “anyway”, or “still”, though it is not necessarily a direct equivalent to any of them.
Examples: Je t’aime quand même (I still like you) Quand même, ça c’est Wonderwall (Anyway, this is Wonderwall) C’était une mauvaise idée quand même (It was a bad idea anyway).
This section focuses on phrases that are often used as advice or warnings. Some of them are are metaphorical, and others are not.
Chacun voit midi à sa porte
Literal translation: “Everyone sees noon at their door”
Usage: When a francophone is speaking as if their own experiences are universal, chacun voit midi à sa porte serves as a reminder that their perspective is limited. After all, even time is not universal. It may be noon in Chicago, but it’s 1:00 in New York and 7:00 in Paris.
Il (ne) faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties
Literal translation: “You shouldn’t push meemaw in the nettles”
Usage: It is unclear what grandmothers and stinging nettles have to do with it, but the phrase roughly means “stop exaggerating” or “stop over-reacting.” The beginning of the expression comes from using il faut pas pousser or “you shouldn’t push” to mean “you shouldn’t exaggerate. Some rough English equivalents are “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” and “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”.
Mauvais quart d’heure
Literal translation: “Bad quarter of an hour”
Usage: You may know the English expression “fifteen minutes of fame.” French has an expression for the opposite of it. Your mauvais quart d’heure is a moment in your life when everything seems to be going wrong. But remember that it will pass.
Mettre les points sur les i
Literal translation: “Put dots on the I’s”
Usage: Mettre les points sur les i may remind you of the English one “cross your Ts and and dot your Is.” It is similar in usage but not quite the same. It means to make things more clear.
Plus ça change
Literal translation: “More that changes”
Usage: Plus ça change is a shortened form of Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “The more changes, the more stays the same.” This is one of a few French phrases used in English, but we keep it long.
An idiom is a phrase that has an established meaning that is not easy to deduce. Just as someone who did not grow up speaking English would need “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “they’re pushing up daisies” explained to them, a new French speaker would not be prepared to hear Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse or coup de foudre in conversation.
Avoir un dent contre quelqu’un
Literal translation: “To have a tooth against someone”
Usage: When you have a tooth against someone, you have a problem with them or hold a grudge against them.
Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard
Literal translation: “It doesn’t break three legs to a duck”
Usage: Something that doesn’t break three legs to a duck is nothing special, or not a big deal. A three-legged duck would certainly be a big deal.
C’est simple comme bonjour
Literal translation: “It’s as simple as hello”
Usage: C’est simple comme bonjour is an equivalent to US English’s “It’s easy as pie.” It signifies that something is second-nature or comes naturally to the speaker.
Coup de foudre
Literal translation: “Strike of lightning”
Usage: This is one of the most classic French phrases about love. Since the late 1700s, coup de foudre has idiomatically described love at first sight. Because the French are nothing if not poetic.
Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse
Literal translation: “It’s raining like a cow pees”
Usage: You are not alone if this one made your inner twelve-year-old giggle. It is the equivalent of “It’s raining cats and dogs,” except its origin is a little more intuitive since it’s related to large amounts of liquid.
Être dans la galère
Literal translation: “To be in the galley”
Usage: A person who is “in the galley” has gotten themself into a mess. The expression was coined by Molière, the 17th century playwright who is a major figure in the French literary canon.
L’esprit de l’escalier
Literal translation: “Staircase spirit”
Usage: The staircase spirit describes the feeling you get when you think of a perfect response after the time for it has passed or at the bottom of the metaphorical staircase. The coinage is credited to 18th century philosopher Denis Diderot.
Nostalgie de la boue
Literal translation: “Longing for the mud”
Usage: When it was coined by Émile Augier in 1855, “longing for the mud” described desire for the cruel, morbid, or depraved. It later evolved to describe a longing for a simpler life.
Pisser dans un violon
Literal translation: “Pissing in a violin”
Usage: Someone who is pissing in a violin is wasting their efforts. Urinating into a violin seems like it would require impressive aim and patience, yet does not appear to accomplish anything. If anyone has tried it, comments would be appreciated.
Revenons à nos moutons
Literal translation: “Let’s return to our sheep”
Usage: This unusual expression that goes back to the 15th century is a request to get back to the matter at hand.
Occupe-toi de tes oignons
Literal translation: “Occupy yourself with your onions”
Usage: This is a snappy way to say “mind your own business.” Similarly, c’est pas tes oignons is the equivalent of “that’s none of your business”
You are now closer to knowing how to speak French like a local and not like a learner. Try some of these phrases out with a French tutor or conversation partner. In the meantime, it never hurts to review French past, present, and future tenses.
For a comprehensive guide to learning French for the first time, check out How to Start Learning French: An Indispensable Guide.