Test your French with these nine expressions linked to insects

Gober les mouches, fier comme un pou, avoir le bourdon - learn how to use these everyday French phrases

If you stare at something with your mouth wide open, tu gobe les mouches (swallow the flies)
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The best way to sound like a native speaker is to adopt their everyday terms and turns of phrases.

Directly translating ‘the bee’s knees’ (les genoux de l’abeille) is not a good idea because it does not mean anything in French, but the language does also have many expressions and phrases involving insects such as flies, fleas or wasps.

Below are nine expressions containing insects. We give you their meanings, where they come from and the context to use them in.

Mettre la puce à l'oreille

If something “puts the flea in the ear”, it means that it arouses suspicion and rings alarm bells.

It can be traced back to the 17th century and it is linked to the itchiness of fleas. If your ear started itching, then you would have a horrible feeling that would put you on guard.

For example, if you heard something suspicious, you could tell your friend ça m’a mis la puce à l’oreille. It is a commonly employed expression and can be used in any context.

Read more: Bouillon, soupçon: Two French culinary terms with other meanings

Prendre la mouche

Hundreds of years ago, mouche could be used to describe various types of insects, not just flies. In this case, it refers to a horsefly, which is called a taon in French.

Horsefly stings can be painful, so prendre la mouche means to get annoyed or angry very suddenly, often about a trivial topic.

For a similar reason, the French say ‘quelle mouche l’a piqué’ (which fly stung him?) if someone gets angry, with mouche likely meaning horsefly in this case.

After your friend flies off the handle, you can say il a pris la mouche (he took the fly). It is a more polite way of saying ‘he got pissed off’.

Ma puce

Terms of endearment can be quite random, whether in France or elsewhere.

An example of this is ma puce, meaning ‘My flea’. The term is most often used for wives or daughters.

When your partner comes home from work, you can greet them with a tender ça va ma puce? (‘you ok sweetheart?’)

La cigale et la fourmi

If someone is referred to as a cigale (cicada), it means that they spend money without thinking about the future.

The opposite goes for someone described as a fourmi (ant), which refers to someone who plans carefully and sensibly for the future.

The meanings come from a fable by Jean de la Fontaine called La Cigale et la Fourmi.

In the story, the cicada spends the summer singing while the ant prepares for the winter.

When the cicada goes to the ant to ask for food, the ant simply laughs and tells it to dance, as it loved singing during the summer so much.

The cigale to mean a frivolous spender is more common than the fourmi, which might only be understood in conjunction in opposition to a cigale.

It is not a commonly used oral expression (although cigale is sometimes used), but you may hear the terms in songs or read it in literature.

Read more: ‘Montrer patte blanche’: French fairytale phrase for trustworthiness

Avoir le bourdon

This expression means being sad or depressed and thinking that nothing will go right. If you wake up depressed, you can say j’ai le bourdon aujourd’hui (I am depressed today).

A bourdon is a bumblebee but it is not clear whether the expression and the insect are linked.

One possible explanation is that the buzzing of the bumblebee is the noise that someone who is feeling depressed hears in their head.

Another explanation is that a bourdon is also a type of bell in a church that rings out a deep noise and is rung in the case of the death of an important person or in remembrance of the fallen at Toussaint, for example. It is also rung at Christmas or Easter.

To make the origin of the meaning more unclear, avoir le cafard is an equivalent expression that is often used, with cafard meaning cockroach. It is probably linked to the poor reputation that the cockroach has, being a symbol of dirt and squalor.

Gober les mouches

Gober means to swallow quickly and without chewing while mouche is the French word for fly so gober les mouches means to swallow flies.

The turn of phrase has three different meanings. It can be used to mean gawp or stare with your jaw hanging open, and therefore letting flies fly down your throat.

It can also mean someone who is extremely naive and believes anything they are told. In this case, the term ‘un gobe-mouche’ is used, literally a fly-swallower.

The third meaning for gober les mouches is when you let yourself be carried away by laziness and do nothing. Compter les mouches (count the flies) or regarder les mouches voler (watching the flies fly) are also used as equivalents.

If your partner is gawping at something, you can ask pourquoi tu gobes les mouches comme ça? (why are you staring like that?)

Avoir une taille de guêpe

In this phrase, taille refers to waist rather than size. It can be translated as having an ‘hourglass figure’.

It dates back to medieval times, when corsets were used to give women their desired body shapes with very thin waists.

If you see someone with an hourglass figure, you can say elle a une taille de guêpe. It is used almost exclusively for women.

Jouer la mouche du coche

Another expression taken from Jean de la Fontaine and his fables is jouer la mouche du coche (playing the stagecoach fly).

In La Mouche et la Coche (the Fly and the Stagecoach), six horses are dragging a carriage up a sandy hill. They stop because they are tired and it is very difficult.

A fly comes along, buzzes in their ears and stings them, telling them to move. The passengers of the stagecoach get out to help get it up the hill.

When eventually the horses are able to drag the stagecoach to the top of the hill, the fly believes it was a considerable help and even asks for payment, despite in fact being a nuisance.

Therefore, if someone does not actually contribute but orders others around or claims to have contributed a great deal, you can tell them tu joues la mouche du coche (you are being the stagecoach fly).

Fier comme un pou

This expression refers to someone who is overly proud or vain.

A pou is a lice but the pou in question is a poul which is a colloquial word to refer to a rooster.

An equivalent expression in English would be ‘proud as a peacock’.

There is a phrase that uses pou to mean lice, which is laid comme un pou - as ugly as a lice. This refers to someone who is ugly.

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