7 French phrases that sound bizarre when translated

Using these expressions with native speakers will make you sound like a master of French

Has your neighbour told you they have been combing the giraffe at work?
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French, like any other language, is full of weird and wonderful expressions and phrases that do not make sense when directly translated.

Some of these expressions have made their way into everyday usage, and to a native French speaker are as simple as saying ‘ça va !’ 

Others are common with the younger generations.

They can leave learners scratching their heads, however, wondering what a well-groomed giraffe has to do with someone’s slow day at the office (more on this below).

Sometimes the expressions are still not clear even with the benefit of context, so it is useful to take note of the ones you see.

Below we list seven that you can hear in everyday exchanges, but may be unlikely to grasp based on translation alone.

We give the direct translation in the heading and a possible English equivalent.

Au bout de rouleau – at end of the scroll

Directly translated, être au bout de rouleau means to be at the end of the scroll. Rouleau has a few meanings including scroll, roller, rolling pin or roll. 

It is used in frustration the same way an English speaker might say they are at the end of their tether.

If you are really fed up, you can use je suis au bout de rouleau to express your frustration with the situation. 

Claqué au sol - slammed to the ground

When you hear something described as claqué au sol, it is not a good thing.

It is used in the same way as nul, suggesting something is bad quality or not worth it. 

The expression has been around since about 2019, and is popular in internet culture, meaning it is more common amongst younger speakers.

Read more: The French you learn at school is often not what you hear: 5 examples

Craquer son slip - to split your pants 

Translated directly, this means to split your pants – craquer can mean to split or crack, and slip refers to underwear (usually knickers). 

Putting them together in this phrase however signifies that someone has really lost their temper.

It is more colloquial, and is like saying someone ‘has lost their shit’ in English.

Être à coté de la plaque - to be next to the plank

Être à côté de’ translates as ‘to be next to something’, and la plaque can mean lots of different things depending on context, such as a plank, badge, patch or even number plate. 

In this phrase, the two combined mean to miss the point of something or to be mistaken. 

It is the same as saying something is ‘well off the mark’ or ‘well off-target’ in English.

Mettre de l’eau dans son vin - putting water in your wine 

Mettre de l’eau dans son vin literally translates as putting water into your wine, but the conjured image of mixing two things together is only partially correct.

The phrase is used in situations when two people disagree, and must make an effort to compromise.

Our English equivalent could be to reach a consensus, or to (both) back down in an argument. It only really works if both people put the work in to do so.

Read more: Useful informal French expressions you don’t learn at school 

Peigner la girafe – to comb the giraffe

Peigner la girafe translated directly means to comb the giraffe, which gives very little indication of what the expression relates to.

If you were to comb a giraffe, it would be a long and pointless task, which is a hint towards its meaning.

When you hear someone say this, it means that they are working very slowly or very inefficiently completing a task – like ‘twiddling your thumbs’ in English.

Coincer la bulle - Trapping the bubble

This expression comes from the military, where it was used to describe soldiers manning artillery guns.

To calibrate the gun to the correct position, soldiers would use a device similar to a spirit meter, that saw a ‘bubble’ lined up between two markers, showing the mortar was in a straight line.

Once they had done this, the soldiers had to simply stand around and wait for the order to fire. Therefore, they had lots of time to ‘trap the bubble’. 

In English, this could be considered the equivalent to resting on one’s oars, it simply suggests doing nothing or resting.

It must be said, however, that this is not an everyday expression, and is slightly more poetic than its English counterpart.