A wet chicken - and other idioms

Learning French is not all about getting to grips with perfect text-book grammar

Learning French is not all about getting to grips with perfect text-book grammar

Learning French is not all about getting to grips with perfect text-book grammar. An important part of the process is also about grasping more everyday sayings.

But while some French sayings are more or less a direct translation of the English, others seem to have no relation to them at all, even though they mean the same thing. When thrown into the middle of a sentence by a French speaker, they can completely catch you out.

However, slip one into your own conversation and you’ll show off some impressive conversational skills. Here are a few examples:

Quand les poules auront les dents - Pigs might fly
On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre - You can’t have your cake and eat it

But why are some sayings said in such a different way?
Connexion asked some native French speakers to offer some explanations of their favourites.

Il fait un froid de canard - It’s freezing
It’s perhaps not surprising that animals that end up on the plate figure a lot in French expressions. The director of Aquitaine Langues in Bergerac in the Dordogne, Albert Croce, explains that the origins of this expression come from the hunting of ducks. “In winter, as the hunter has to stand very still to let the duck come closer, the cold penetrates into his bones.”

Tomber de Charybde en Scylla - Out of the frying pan, into the fire
Infant school teacher and committee member at Bilingual Education Exchange in the Lot-et-Garonne, Alain Sauron, says that the French use of Tomber de Charybde en Scylla is a reference to the story of Ulysses, “where Ulysses and his men had to avoid the giant whirlpool Charybdis, only to fall into the clutches of Scylla, a six-headed sea monster”.

Vous êtes une poule mouillée - You’re a coward
To explain the origins of this saying, Françoise Lipchitz of the Association Périgord Linguistique et Culturelle in Périgueux in the Dordogne, refers to Pierre-Marie Quitard’s dictionary of proverbs, published in 1842. The saying apparently refers to a chicken that, when it becomes wet from the rain, “Just stands in the background, without moving, as if it is ashamed and dejected”. It looks as if it dare not move or do anything, just like a coward.

Manger son pain blanc en premier - To go from being happy to sad
Originally from Cameroon, Suzanne Pasquon is a lover of the French language and explains an expression related to France’s love of bread. “This expression dates back to 1515, when, for the poor, bread was a dark grey colour because they didn’t have white flour and still had impurities. When cleaner, finer flour became available, lighter-coloured, white bread, which tasted better was made, normally reserved for the rich. So, people tended to eat the white bread first and the less good last.”
The saying Si tu manges ton pain blanc en premier, tu manges ton pain noir plus tard (If you eat your white bread first, then eat your black bread later) generally refers to something that has already happened and to someone who has enjoyed something good/had a good time and then finds themselves deprived of it. If someone has become prosperous, the French say, Il mange son pain blanc.
If you really want to impress, here are two more French sayings with interesting origins:

Revenons à nos moutons - Let’s get back to the point
This saying is said to come from a 15th-century play called La Farce de Maître Pathelin, written by an unknown author. Maître Pathelin, a lawyer and the main character in the play, deliberately tries to mislead a judge by bringing two cases before him – one relating to sheep and the other to sheets. When the judge becomes confused, he repeatedly says, “Mais revenons à nos moutons”. Since then, revenons à nos moutons has meant, “Let’s get back to the point”.

A la saint-glinglin - Never in a month of Sundays
An actual saint named Glinglin never existed; the name represents a fictional date in the Catholic calendar in France. It’s a date that you don’t want to happen and that never comes. The “Saint” is said to come from the word seing (a signal, signature or mark) which, in old French represented the ringing of a bell. Glin is said to come from the word glinguer, which originates from a dialect in the Metz region of France and which means to ring a bell.
If you say you are going to pay someone at the saint-glinglin, it means you are fooling that person, that you will pay when the bell rings, but you don’t say the exact date when the bell will ring, which could be never.

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