10 French Idiomatic Expressions and Their English Meanings

Updated on June 10, 2020
Uriel Mbobda profile image

Uriel is an avid linguaphile who provides the best pieces of advice to reach your language goals.


The Use of Idiomatic Expressions in French

With about 280 million speakers worldwide, French is recognized as the fifth most spoken language in the world. Whatever may be your motivation for learning the language of love, your ultimate goal would certainly be to be able to communicate fluently with your audience. Idiomatic expressions are an essential tool to master any language, and French is no exception. They are those interesting locutions which contribute to the beauty of the language and which must not be taken literally! We will study the following ten French expressions, their literal and actual meanings, as well as their use in a sentence:

  1. Avoir une langue de vipère.
  2. Chercher midi à quatorze heures.
  3. Avoir la grosse tête.
  4. Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué.
  5. Poser un lapin.
  6. Tomber dans les pommes.
  7. Avoir le cœur sur la main.
  8. Baisser les bras.
  9. Mettre la main à la pâte.
  10. Appeler un chat un chat.

1. Avoir une Langue de Vipère

Literal meaning: To have a viper's tongue

Actual meaning: A person is said to have a "langue de vipère" when they are known for regularly slandering and backbiting others. Sometimes, a gossipy person is called a viper in reference to this idiomatic expression.

Use in a Sentence: Quelle langue de vipère elle a, cette Jasmine! Elle passe son temps a dire du mal de Carla.

Translation: Jasmine is such a gossip! She keeps slandering Carla.

2. Chercher Midi à Quatorze Heures

Literal Meaning: To look for midday at 2 p.m (I agree, it makes no sense!)

Actual Meaning: To turn a simple task into a complicated task.

Use in a Sentence: C'est aussi simple que ça, ne cherchez pas midi à quatorze heures!

Translation: It's as simple as that, do not look into the matter more than is necessary!

3. Avoir la Grosse Tête

Literal Meaning: To have a big head.

Actual Meaning: To be pretentious.

Example: Depuis qu'il a été nommé directeur du personel, il a pris la grosse tête!

Translation: Ever since he was appointed Human Resources Manager, he has been acting pretentious.

A humourous illustration of the expression "Avoir la grosse tête"
A humourous illustration of the expression "Avoir la grosse tête" | Source

4. Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué

Literal Meaning: To sell a bear's skin before killing it.

Actual Meaning: To consider a privilege as acquired before first possessing it.

Example: Le client doit d'abord approuver la transaction, alors ne vendez pas la peau de l'ours avant de l’avoir tué.

Translation: The client is yet to approve the transaction, so do not celebrate your victory just yet.

5. Poser un Lapin

Literal Meaning: To drop a rabbit.

Actual Meaning: It speaks of a failure to honor an appointment with someone, without letting them know in advance.

Use in a Sentence: J'avais rendez-vous avec Jacques ce matin, mais il m'a posé un lapin.

Translation: Jacques and I had an appointment this morning, but he didn't come.

6. Tomber Dans les Pommes

Literal Meaning: To fall into apples.

Actual Meaning: To faint.

Use in a Sentence: Elle en était tellement choquée qu'elle est tombée dans les pommes.

Translation: She was so shocked that she fainted.

A literal representation of the locution "Tomber dans les pommes"
A literal representation of the locution "Tomber dans les pommes" | Source

7. Avoir le Coeur sur la Main

Literal Meaning: To have your heart on your hand.

Actual Meaning: To be generous.

Example: Cette dame a le coeur sur la main; chaque année, elle offre des cadeaux aux enfants.

Translation: This woman is so generous; each year, she makes gifts for children.

8. Baisser les Bras

Literal Meaning: To lower your arms.

Actual Meaning: To give up.

Use in a Sentence: Ne baisse pas les bras, tu y es presque!

Translation: Don't give up, you are almost there!

9. Mettre la main à la pâte

Literal Meaning: To put your hand in the dough.

Actual Meaning: To participate in a work being done.

Example: Si vous pouviez mettre la main à la pâte sur ce projet, nous irions certainement plus vite.

Translation: If could you bring in your contribution to this project, we would surely work faster.

"Mettre la main à la pâte"
"Mettre la main à la pâte" | Source

10. Appeler un Chat un Chat

Literal Meaning: To call a cat, a cat.

Actual Meaning: To speak frankly about a delicate issue.

Use in a Sentence: Je vais appeler un chat un chat et vous dire que votre conduite etait inadmissible.

Translation: I am going to be frank with you and tell you that your behavior was inappropriate.

The Key to Using Idiomatic Expressions

Do not take them in their literal sense and always learn as much as you can about their meaning and use.

Learn More French Idioms

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Uriel Eliane


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    • Uriel Mbobda profile imageAUTHOR

      Uriel Eliane 

      4 weeks ago from Toronto

      Thanks for your comment Liz! I hope you learned a thing or two :)

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      4 weeks ago from UK

      I studied French many years ago, but, apart from the third one, all the others were new to me.


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