Oh la vache! Animal expressions abound in French

From cats to pigs and even cockroaches, there are many expressions linked to animals in French.

11 April 2019
By Selma Daddi

Some are similar to English like ‘Être malade comme un chien’ (literally: to be as sick as a dog).

Here we give 16 examples.

1/ Quand les poules auront des dents (literally: when chickens have teeth)

This is a figure of speech for something that is impossible, as chickens will never have teeth. It has entered the French vocabulary in the 18th century. It is the equivalent of 'when pigs fly'.

2/ Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter (literally: to have other cats to whip)

In the 17th century people used to say ‘il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat’ (it's not worth whipping a cat about) when something was not important or worry about, so to have 'other cats to whip' means you have more important things to do.

3/ Donner sa langue au chat (literally: to give one’s tongue to the cat)

You might say this when you cannot guess the answer to a question. The real expression used to be ‘jeter sa langue au chien’ (to throw one’s tongue to the dog). But it changed to ‘donner sa langue au chat’ in the 19th century. Cats had a better image than dogs and were seen as secret keepers who could perhaps give you the answer you were looking for.

4/ Avoir le cafard (literally: to have the cockroach)

It is said that Charles Baudelaire introduced this expression with a poem in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. It has stayed in our vocabulary to describe a moment of sadness.

5/ Poser un lapin (literally: to put a rabbit)

The origin of the expression is unknown - but some believe it dates back centuries, when rabbits were associated with fertility. In the 19th century, it meant not paying for a prostitute’s service and it has now evolved in standing someone up.

6/ Être un chaud lapin (literally: to be a hot rabbit),

If a man is called un ‘chaud lapin’ he probably sleeps around. The expression comes from the fact rabbits are sexually voracious.

7/ Passer du coq à l’âne (literally: to go from the cock to the donkey)

This is generally used when someone speaks about something and suddenly change subject. 

8/ Revenir à nos moutons (literally: to come back to our sheep)

The opposite of number seven, this phrase is used when you want to return to a topic you were previously discussing with someone. It comes originally from a 15th century comedy play, la Farce du Maître Pathelin, in which a man comes before a judge with two complaints, one about someone conning him out of some sheets and one about someone else stealing sheep. He gets mixed up in his explanation between the sheets and sheep and the judge, irritated, tells him "revenons à nos moutons" (let's get back to our sheep). 

9/ Être une poule mouillée (literally: to be a wet chicken)

Refers to someone who is always scared and lacks courage. It refers to the fact that chickens do not move and hide when it rains.

10/ Il pleut comme vache qui pisse (literally: it is raining like a cow is pissing)

It is tipping it down with rain. 

11/ Être une langue de vipère (literally: to be a viper’s tongue)

This means a person is malicious and likes to gossip.

12/ Être muet comme une carpe (literally: to be mute like a carp)

This means someone is silent. It refers to the fact carps often lift their heads out of water and keep their mouths open.

13/ Être myope comme une taupe (literally: to be short-sighted like a mole)

This means you cannot see anything. Moles are known for their poor eyesight.

14/ On n’a pas élevé les cochons ensemble (literally: we did not raise pigs together)

The expression means that you do not consider yourself close to another person. Raising pigs is considered a hard job and sharing this work with someone else would make you friends.

15/ S’entendre comme cochons (literally: to get along like pigs)

This means you are the good friend of someone. Some people might also say ‘copains comme cochons’ (friends like pigs). The expression used to be ‘camarades comme cochons’, and cochon was a derivation of the latin word ‘socius’ which meant ‘compagnon’ (partner).  

16/ S’ennuyer comme un rat mort (literally: bored as a dead rat)

It means that you are so bored you feel lonely like a dead rat forgotten in a dark cellar.

Speaking about rats, you may also hear the expression ‘à bon chat, bon rat’ (literally to a good cat, a good rat) which means that someone has met his match.

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