10 French Expressions

If you are new to the French language, then you might sometimes feel that learning french is like taking a walk in the park, but only if it is Jurassic Park! Kidding aside, french is tricky not only because of its complex grammar but also because of its expressions and idioms!

Learning these idioms is important for following and entertaining conversations with your fellow French native speakers. Here are ten French expressions or idioms with their explanations, sample usage, and how they originated. Enjoy!

1. C’est du gâteau

Have you ever been asked to complete a task that so easy that it didn’t feel like a task at all? Here’s the phrase for you: “c’est du gâteau!”

Meaning: This literally translates to “it is cake”. Closely related to the English idiom, describing something as a “piece of cake,” “c’est du gâteau” can be said for describing a task easy to be executed.

Example: J’ai fini mon projet ! C’était du gâteau ! (I finished my project! It was so easy!)

Origin: The idiom is believed to originate from Marie Antoinette’s era, which is marked by famine in the low-income households. The Queen came up with a simple solution to this complex problem, to which she said: “Let them eat cake!”

2. Au ras des pâquerettes

Tired of simply saying that something doesn’t meet your expectations? Try saying: “au ras des pâquerettes”.

Meaning: This literally means “at the level of daisies”, which implies low in quality.

Example: Il a un humour au ras des pâquerettes. (He has a very dry, low-level humor.)

Origin: The French correlate low quality with the low lying height of daisies flowers. 

3. Mettre la main à la pâte

Want to ask someone to help out? Try saying “mettre la main à la pâte”.

Meaning: This literally means “to put the hand in the dough”, which figuratively means helping out or actively participating. 

Example: Nous devons tous mettre la main à la pâte. (We all have to contribute)

Origin: The idea is that by helping to knead a bread dough; you are offering a helping hand.

4. Grosso Modo

Want to provide a broad estimation? Try using the idiom “grosso modo”.

Meaning: “Grosso modo” means “roughly” or “approximately”.

Example: Dis-moi grosso modo ce que tu en penses. (Tell me roughly what you think.)

Origin: “Grosso modo” is a Latin expression that signifies an approximation.

5. Chacun voit midi à sa porte

Want to convey that we can’t really judge people’s feelings and judgments because they are up to them? Here’s the phrase for you: “Chacun voit midi à sa porte”.

Meaning: Literally translating to “everyone sees noon at his door”,  this expression means that people tend to see things in their own ways, and thus you can’t enforce your opinion on them. 

Example: Inutile de discuter, chacun voit midi à sa porte. (It’s pointless to argue, everyone sees things in their own way.)

Origin: This expression refers back to early days, when people would personally judge the time by seeing the sunbeam shine through their doors or windows.

6. Avoir le cafard

Want to describe feeling sad and blue? Try learning “avoir le cafard”.

Meaning: The phrase literally means “to have the cockroach” but is used to express “feeling low” or “feeling depressed”.

Example: Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais j’ai le cafard. (I don’t know why, but I’m feeling low.)

Origin: The phrase is credited to the poet Charles Baudelaire, who correlates cockroaches with a state of depression and a sense of pointlessness in his poem collection “Les Fleurs du mal” in 1857.

7. Être un boute-en-train

Would you like to describe someone as cheerful and entertaining? “Être un boute-en-train” will be perfect for you. 

Meaning: This literally translates “to be the end-in-the-train”, and figuratively means “being the life of the party”. You can use it to describe a cheerful, upbeat person who has good humor.

Example: “Elle a toujours été une boute-en-train”. (She was always the life of the party.)

Origin: The suggestion is that the end of the train is seen as the more cheerful end.

8. Raconter des salades

Want to describe people who keep telling lies? Use the idiom “Raconter des salades”.

Meaning: “Raconter des salades” literally means “to tell salads”, which figuratively means making things up to create lies.

Example: Si elle s’est plantée c’est parce qu’elle n’arrêtait pas de raconter des salades”. (If she messed up it’s because she kept telling lies.)

Origin: Making a salad involves mixing around many elements and creating a harmonious dish to eat. This is similar to when you lie: you make up a beautiful story that others will want to consume.

9. Passer un savon

Worried about getting scolded? Then your worry is all about getting “un savon”.

Meaning: This literally means “to pass soap”, and figuratively means “giving someone a sermon” or “argue with someone strictly”.

Example: L’écolier savait qu’il allait se faire passer un savon pour ses notes”. (The schoolboy knew he was going to get yelled at for his grades.)

Origin: Back in the days, doing laundry meant using soap and rigorously beating up clothes. Hence, the expression “passer un savon” took on the meaning “to give a sermon to someone”. People will “passer un savon” when they intend to improve someone’s moral values and to make him or her “cleaner” (like clothes).

10. Avoir un coup de foudre

Has someone ever given you a first impression so wonderful that you fell in love? Then the French would say you experienced “un coup de foudre”.

Meaning: “Avoir un coup de foudre” literally translates “to have a stroke of lightning”, and figuratively means “to fall in love at first sight”.

Example: La première fois que je l’ai vu, j’ai eu un coup de foudre. (The first time I saw her, I fell in love.)

Origin: Just like how lightning strikes very quickly and without warning, falling in love can also happen to anyone at any time. 

So there you go: ten French expressions to help improve your French vocabulary. Try inserting imageries in your speech and your conversations will automatically get more lively and fun!