10 common French sayings to improve your language skills

From ‘telling salads’ to ‘giving his tongue to the cat’, here are some great sayings to embellish your sentences with

French is full of sayings that every native speaker has as part of their vocabulary
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Every language has lots of sayings that most natives will know well and French is no different.

These sayings are often built into a language’s vocabulary - you can’t identify the point that you first heard them or learnt what they meant, but somehow they always come in handy.

Between native speakers, there is a mutual understanding that while the phrases literally may make no sense, everyone knows what they mean.

Here are some of the French phrases that all native French speakers know and what they mean.

1. Avoir du pain sur la planche

This literally translates as “to have bread on the board”, but it signifies that you have a lot of work ahead of you.

However, the meaning of this phrase has evolved over time.

Nowadays it means that you have a lot to do, but in the 19th century, it signified having enough reserves to face the future.

Read also: Ten French language basics to master before studying irregular verbs

2. Il y a anguille sous roche

This translates to “there is an eel under the rock”. It means there is something suspicious going on and is the equivalent to the English phrase “something fishy”.

It is thought the phrase derives from the snake-like quality of an eel and their lurking nature, which results in an unwelcome surprise when you come across one.

3. C’est l'hôpital qui se fout de la charité

This is the equivalent to the English expression “the pot calling the kettle black”. It literally translates to “it’s the hospital that makes fun of the charity”, but signifies when someone is dishing out criticism that could easily be applied to the person themselves.

4. C’est vieux comme le monde

This one is fairly self explanatory. It translates as “it’s old like the world” and it simply means that something is very old or has existed for a long time.

5. Raconter des salades

Raconter des salades translates literally “to tell salads” but it means to tell fibs.

It is thought the phrase derives from the fact that salads can take on different forms, in the same way telling fibs or lies is a different spin on the truth.

6. Mettre la puce à l'oreille

While this translates literally as “to put the flea in the ear” it actually means to put an idea in someone’s head or to get someone thinking.

Sometimes it is used in a negative sense. For example, it could suggest raising doubt or suspicions over something.

However, it can also simply suggest it has prompted someone to reflect on something. For example, you could say: “Qu’est-ce qui t’a mis la puce à l'oreille ?” which translates as “What made you think that?”.

Read also: Widen your vocabulary with 10 alternatives to common French phrases

7. Se lever du pied gauche

This translates to “get up on the left foot” and is the French equivalent to our “to get up on the wrong side of the bed”.

8. Mettre les bouchées doubles

This means to work twice as hard or do something faster. This literal translation is “to take double mouthfuls”, which suggests cramming food in your mouth.

9. Donner sa langue au chat

The direct translation means “to give his tongue to the cat”, however it means “to give up”. It is employed in the case of a joke or an enigma that you cannot solve and that you were asked to clear up. Previously the phrase was “jeter sa langue aux chiens” which translates as “to throw his tongue to the dogs”. Over time in the 19th century, the phrase developed to “donner sa langue au chat”.

10. Etre une poule mouillée

This is the equivalent to the English expression “to be a damp squib” or “a damp cloth”, however the French version is “to be a damp chicken”. It refers to someone who fears something but doesn't have enough courage to face the perceived challenge or danger.

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