Common French Sayings

Instructor: AJ Dana-Yoblonski

Dual citizen of France and Canada. Journalist - French print media (L'Obs, Paris Match, Le Parisien, ...) / Private tutor (grammar: English, French, Latin; literature) / Institutional communications officer

Because the French are known to be very creative, you might come across the most unusual expressions during your stay in France. Here are some good ones to know, in order for you to have the proper reaction when you come across them.

French Sayings

Imagine you haven't heard from your French friend Alphonse in a while. You decide to ask him out to a café to catch up. When you ask him what's new, he answers that winter is on its way, and that il pleut des cordes. What? It's raining 'ropes?' Yes, in French, it doesn't rain cats and dogs. It rains ropes.

You and Alphonse are in Paris having drinks. Instead of saying Cheers, you'd use one of the following phrases:

Tchin (pronounced: t-sheen). This is a phonetic adaptation of 'cheers'

Santé (pronounced: son-tay). This literally means: health. Basically, you are devoting your drink to your friend's health.

A la tienne (pronounced: a la ti-eh-ne). It has the same meaning as santé but is more specific, meaning 'to yours' or 'to your health.'

Sayings with a Literal Meaning

Alphonse starts talking about work. His company is not doing well, and some people might be laid off. He says: ça me pend au nez (pronounced: sa mö pon o nay), which means literally: 'it is hanging from my nose.' This expression is used to describe an ominous, negative possibility which is very likely to happen. It's so close to becoming real, it is hanging from your nose!

Alphonse thinks this whole situation is unfair, because the work he has provided is du travail de longue haleine. This means iterally: 'work of long breath.' The meaning of this expression is linked to the physical aspect. If you breathe long and hard, it means that you are making a considerable effort to achieve something.

He then tells you: Je suis dans mes petits souliers, meaning 'I am in my small shoes.' Understand that he does not feel well emotionally. Originally, in the 19th century, souliers referred to wooden shoes which were uncomfortable, especially if they were too small for you. Back then, je suis dans mes petits souliers meant that you were physcially unwell, suffering as much as you would if you were wearing shoes that were too small for you. The physical pain expressed by this saying became an expression of emotional discomfort.


At this point, you realize how sensitive your friend is. Don't get too nosy, or he might tell you: Occupe-toi de tes oignons. This literally means: Take care of your own onions. That is the French way of saying 'mind your own business.' If you insist, your friend might take a French leave, which, ironically enough, is said as follows: filer à l'anglaise, literally 'slipping away like an English person.'

Sayings with a Historical Meaning

Alphonse then speaks about one of his colleagues, who acts like a fayot at work, meaning a brown-nose. A fayot in French is a type of bean. Back in the day, on ships, crew members used to eat a lot of beans, because they were cheap and easily found. Rumor has it that crews came to hate beans, as much as they hated brown-noses whom they came to nickname fayots. Today, it's even a verb: fayoter (say fa-yo-tay), meaning 'to act like a brown-nose.'

You ask your friend if he has been looking elsewhere for a new job. He answers that a friend who owns a company is willing to hire him. Mais c'est une promesse de Gascon, he adds. This means that it is a false promise. In the 16th century, the people of Gascogny (which is now the Southwestern part of France) were said to have some of the best soldiers. They were also said to brag about them. Bragging, in terms of this French phrase, turned into promising things that will not happen.

Another expression referring to a French region has a similar meaning: Faire son Marseillais is a colloquial way of saying that someone is exaggerating. This saying is especially used in Paris, Marseille's rival city.


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