It’s all very well learning French vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, but you can never say you truly speak French or any foreign language until you’ve mastered a decent number of French Idioms.
Idioms are those curious, colourful expressions that often don’t make much literal sense but that native speakers use all the time without thinking. In English, we say things like ‘raining cats and dogs’, and French has its own range of similarly expressive utterances.
If you want to understand spoken French, you’ll need to know what many common French idioms mean – and if you can use them yourself, you’re sure to impress any native speakers you talk to. So here’s my list of 38 useful French idioms to help you get started.
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38 Authentic French Idioms
All of the idioms in French on my list are ones that people really use and the kind of thing you’ll hear every day when talking to native French speakers.
Note that since French idiomatic expressions are most common in informal speech, the examples I’ve given are all in colloquial French.
That’s why, for example, you’ll find the ne missing from negative sentences, and there are contractions you won’t find in your grammar book. This is deliberate – because that’s how French people really speak French!
So now, let’s jump right in and get started.
#1 S’En Faire (To Worry)
- T’en fais pas ! (Don’t worry about it! Chill!)
- Il s’en fait un peu parce qu’elle part en vacances toute seule pour la première fois (He’s a bit worried because she’s going on holiday by herself for the first time)
A simple expression that you’ll hear often. It means “to worry”, and it’s especially common when telling someone not to worry, as in the first example.
This expression, like several others here, contains the pronoun en. However, you shouldn’t try to understand it or translate it separately – just accept it as part of the idiom and leave it at that.
As an aside, another colloquial way of saying “don’t worry” is t’inquète. This is a shortened version ne t’inquiète pas that drops both the ne and the pas. That doesn’t make much sense, but that’s why it’s an idiom!
#2 En Vouloir à Quelqu’un (To Be Angry With Someone)
- Je t’en veux parce que t’as laissé mourir la plante que je t’avais offerte (I’m upset with you because you let the plant I gave you die)
- Je suis désolé. Tu m’en veux ? (I’m sorry. Are you angry with me?)
This idiom means you’re angry or upset with someone. Notice that it includes the pronoun en. Again, don’t try to look for it literally translated; just accept it as it is as part of the expression.
#3 C’est Pas Terrible ! (It’s Not Great! It’s Nothing Special!)
- T’as vu le nouveau James Bond ? – Ouais, c’est pas terrible (Have you seen the new James Bond? Yeah, it’s nothing special)
A curious French expression when you hear it for the first time since the meaning is the opposite of what you might expect.
It comes from ‘teenager’ speak – but speech that’s already out of date and not used by teenagers anymore. Terrible was used to say something was great – like “cool” or “wicked” in English – so if something is pas terrible, it means it’s not great, or it’s nothing special.
#4 Faut Pas Exagérer ! (Don’t Go Too Far! Don’t Push It!)
- Donc tu veux que je t’achète ton billet de train, que je te cherche à la gare et qu’en plus, je te paye le déjeuner ? Faut pas exagérer ! (So you want me to buy your train ticket and pick you up at the station – and I even have to pay for your lunch? Don’t push it!)
A slightly difficult expression to find English translations for.
It literally means “you mustn’t exaggerate”, but it expresses the sense that the person is pushing things or asking for too much.
In the example, the speaker is saying that expecting them to pay for the ticket, pick the person up at the station and pay for lunch is going too far.
Rather than the grammatically correct il ne faut pas exagérer, you’re much more likely to hear this in a familiar, shortened form, as in the example.
#5 Faire La Grasse Matinée (To Sleep In)
- Demain enfin je peux faire la grasse matinée ! (At last tomorrow I can sleep in!)
This is the common expression that’s used to mean “sleep in” or “get up late” – the literal translation is “to do the greasy morning” or have a “fat morning”!
Sometimes, French people will shorten matinée to mat, so the example above would become enfin demain je peux faire la grasse mat.
#6 Faire Une Nuit Blanche (To Stay Up All Night)
- Je suis trop vielle pour faire des nuits blanches ! (I’m too old to stay up all night!)
- J’ai fait une nuit blanche et maintenant j’ai du mal à garder les yeux ouverts (I stayed up all night last night, and now I can hardly keep my eyes open)
Another sleep-related idiom. The literal translation is “to do a white night”, and it means staying up all night without sleeping.
#7 Un Coup De Foudre (Love At First Sight)
This list wouldn't be complete without some French idioms about love!
- C’était un vrai coup de foudre quand ils se sont rencontrés ! (It was really love at first sight when they met!)
The literal translation is “a lightning strike”, which is quite a colourful and expressive way to talk about love at first sight!
#8 Casse-Pieds (Annoying)
- T’es vraiment casse-pieds aujourd’hui ! (You’re (being) really annoying today!)
The literal translation of this idiom is “break-feet”, so in French, if you break someone’s feet, it means you’re annoying them – which is understandable.
A more vulgar version of this idiom is casse-couilles. Couilles is a familiar French word for “testicles”, so the meaning of this expression is easy to understand too. But this is not one to use in polite company!
#9 Ne Pas Perdre Le Nord (To Have Your Head Screwed On, To Be Single-Minded)
- Il s’est cassé la jambe et il a dû passer une semaine à l’hôpital, mais il a pas oublié que je lui dois de l’argent. Il perd pas le nord ! (He broke his leg and had to spend a week in hospital, but he didn’t forget I owed him money. He doesn’t forget his priorities!)
The literal translation of this expression is “to not lose the north” and is used to say someone doesn’t forget their priorities, whatever else happens.
In the example, the idea is that even though he broke his leg and had to spend a week in hospital, he still remembered the money that was owed to him, despite having other more important things to worry about.
#10 Rendre Service (à Quelqu’un) (To do (Somebody) A Favour)
- Tu peux me rendre service s’il te plaît ? (Can you do me a favour please?)
An easy one that doesn’t need much explanation – this is how you express “to do (somebody) a favour” in French.
#11 Donner Un Coup De Main (To Give/Lend Someone A Hand)
- Tu peux me donner un coup de main pour déménager ce weekend s’il te plaît ?(Can you give me a hand moving house this weekend, please?)
The word coup can be translated into English with “knock”, “hit”, “blow”, “strike” or several other similar words, but it often doesn’t translate well, as is the case here.
It’s found in quite a few French sayings– we’ve already seen it in coup de foudre – and here, it’s best to just accept that donner un coup de main is the French expression for giving or lending someone a hand.
And after all, it doesn’t really make any less sense than the English equivalent, does it?
#12 Jeter Un Coup D’œil (To Have A Quick Glance)
- Tu peux jeter un coup d’œil sur mon article pour me dire ce que t’en penses s’il te plaît ? (Can you have a quick glance at my article and tell me what you think, please?)
Another idiomatic expression with coup that can’t be translated literally – this one means “to have a quick glance/look”.
#13 Tomber Dans Les Pommes (To Faint, Pass Out)
- Il a vu du sang et il est tombé dans les pommes tout de suite ! (He saw the blood and fainted straight away!)
Some idiomatic expressions make no sense at all, as tomber dans les pommes shows – the literal translation is “to fall in the apples”.
There are many French idioms about food, and this is a good example.
#14 Avoir La Patate/La Pêche (To Be Full Of Energy, Full Of Beans)
- T’as la patate ce matin ! (You’re full of beans this morning!)
- Mon prof de gym a vraiment la pêche aujourd’hui ! (My gym teacher is full of energy today!)
Another food-related idiom and another one that might seem a bit strange – the literal translation is “to have the potato” or “to have the peach”. However, the English idiom “full of beans” means the same thing, which is no better!
#15 Montagnes Russes (Up And Down In An Unpredictable Way)
- C’est vraiment les montagnes russes avec lui depuis son divorce. Un jour il est super heureux et le lendemain, il est en pleine dépression. (It’s completely up and down with him since his divorce. One day he’s super-happy and the next, he’s totally depressed.)
Modern rollercoasters are descended from Russian winter slides that were constructed in mountains from around the 17th century onwards.
When something similar was built in Paris in the 19th century, montagnes russes (Russian mountains), passed into French sayings and is used to describe something that’s always up and down and hard to predict.
And an interesting bit of trivia: when modern rollercoasters first appeared in Russia in the 19th century, the Russians themselves called them американские горки (amerikanskie gorki), meaning “American mountains”!
#16 Faire La Tête (To Sulk)
- Il fait la tête parce que son équipe a perdu (He’s sulking because his team lost)
French idioms can be curious, as can their English counterpart. The literal translation for this one is “to do/make the head” and is used to say that someone is in a sulk.
#17 Prendre La Tête (à Quelqu’un) (To Annoy Somebody, Drive Somebody Crazy)
- Ça me prend vraiment la tête mon travail aujourd’hui ! (My work is driving me nuts today!)
- Il me prend la tête avec ses excuses ridicules ! (He’s driving me crazy with his ridiculous excuses!)
A similar expression to #16 but with quite a different meaning. The literal translation of this French idiom is “to take the head”; it shows how changing one small word in French expressions can make a big difference.
#18 En Avoir Marre (De) (To Be Fed Up (With))
- J’en ai marre de ce mauvais temps ! (I’m fed up with this bad weather!)
Another extremely common expression with en. This French idiom means you are fed up with something or someone.
#19 En Avoir Ras-Le-Bol (To Be Really Fed Up, Be Sick And Tired)
- J’en ai ras-le-bol de rester à la maison tout seul tout le temps ! (I’m sick and tired of staying at home alone all the time!)
This expression is a more idiomatic version of the one in #18 above. Ras-le-bol by itself means something like “gloominess” or “despair”.
#20 Être Crevé (To Be Exhausted)
- J’ai fait du jardinage toute la journée et maintenant je suis complètement crevé (I did the gardening all day and now I’m completely exhausted)
Crevé normally means “burst” or “punctured”, as in un pneu crevé (a punctured tyre). However, when used like this about a person, the literal meaning is that they are exhausted or worn out.
#21 Avoir La Flemme De (To Be Lazy/Not Feel Like It)
- J’ai la flemme d’aller promener le chien (I am not in the mood to go and walk the dog)
This expression is used when you can’t be bothered or feel too lazy to do something. La flemme is a familiar word for “laziness”.
#22 Avoir La Gueule De Bois (To Have A Hangover)
- Quelle soirée ! Mais j’ai la gueule de bois ce matin ! (What a night! But I’m hungover this morning!)
This is an interesting French idiom.
The first word, gueule, means “mouth”, but it is usually used when referring to animals like dogs. However, when used to refer to people, it can mean “face” or “mouth” but is considered vulgar – or at least not very polite.
The second word, bois, means “wood”, so when you use this expression, you are literally saying you have a “mouth of wood” – which anyone who has ever had a little too much alcohol will probably find quite accurate!
#23 Ta Gueule ! (Shut Your Gob!)
Wondering how to say shut your mouth in French? Well now you know!
- Ta gueule ! Qu’est-ce que tu racontes ? (Shut your mouth! What are you talking about ?)
- Ferme ta gueule ! Tu sais vraiment pas de quoi tu parles ! (Shut your mouth ! You really have no idea what you’re talking about!)
Most people probably know tais-toi ! – the French for “shut up!” – or perhaps you might recall your teacher screaming taisez-vous ! (the plural version) at the whole class during French lessons at school (I do, anyway!).
However, if you want to be even more forceful, you can say ta gueule ! which is short for ferme ta gueule ! We just saw the meaning of gueule in #22 above, and here, the literal translation is “shut your gob!” or “shut your trap!”.
Be aware, though, that this is obviously quite rude and aggressive, so it’s the kind of thing you should be very careful about using.
#24 Faire Gaffe (Be Careful)
- Fais gaffe ! La rampe est cassée (Be careful! The bannister is broken)
This is simply a more idiomatic version of faire attention (to be careful). The word gaffe in French has the same meaning as “gaffe” in English, meaning a “blunder”.
#25 En Avoir Rien à Faire/Foutre (Couldn’t Care Less)
- Il vient pas ? J’en ai rien à faire/rien à foutre (He’s not coming? I couldn’t care less/I don’t give a [insert expletive])
Here’s another expression with en. The first version is an idiom that’s equivalent to something like “I couldn’t care less” – the second version is stronger and much less polite, so be very careful about who you use it with.
#26 La Vache ! (Wow! Bloody Hell!)
- Oh la vache ! Ça doit faire mal ! (Ooooh! That must hurt!)
- La vache ! Impressionant ! (Wow! Impressive!)
A general-purpose word to express surprise, astonishment, or admiration – the literal translation is “the cow!” but the English translation could also be “holy cow!”
Another related word is the adverb vachement, which is hard to translate directly but is used to mean “very” or “extremely”: il est vachement bon, ce gâteau (this cake is very good!)
#27 Péter Un Plomb/Les Plombs (To Lose It, Blow A Fuse, Have A Meltdown)
- Il va péter un plomb quand il verra ce qu’il s’est passé (He’s going to lose it/go mad when he sees what’s happened)
This basically means to become extremely angry, to lose control, or to have a meltdown.
Péter means “to fart”, but it’s also a familiar word meaning “to break” something. Un plomb is “a fuse”, so the expression literally means “to blow a fuse” – which is one of the French idioms in English that works too.
#28 Y’a Pas à Dire (What Can You Say? You Can’t Argue)
- Y’a pas à dire, on a de la chance de vivre dans un si joli village à côté de la mer ! (What can you say? We’re lucky to live in such a pretty village by the sea!)
- Y’a pas à dire, tu sais faire vraiment des gâteaux délicieux ! (I can’t argue, you really know how to make delicious cakes!)
The literal translation of this expression is something like “there’s nothing to say”, and it’s used to express the idea of something being inarguably true, possibly when you realise it for the first time.
You’re more likely to hear the familiar version, as in the examples above, rather than the grammatically correct il n’y a pas à dire.
#29 Poser Un Lapin (To Stand Someone Up)
- Ça s’est bien passé, ton rendez-vous avec cette fille ? Pas du tout, elle m’a posé un lapin ! (Did your date with that girl go well? Not at all, she stood me up!)
Literally, this expression means “to put a rabbit”, and it’s used to express standing someone up – as in not turning up for a date. Interestingly, in Chinese, they say almost the same thing – but with “pigeon” instead of “rabbit”.
#30 Pleuvoir/Tomber Des Cordes (To Rain Cats And Dogs)
- Je pense pas qu’on va aller à la plage aujourd’hui, t’as vu le temps qu’il fait ? Il pleut/tombe des cordes ! (I don’t think we’re going to go to the beach today, have you seen the weather? It’s raining cats and dogs!)
With this expression, you can use either pleuvoir (to rain) or tomber (to fall), but the meaning is the same.
#31 Avoir La Moutarde Qui Monte Au Nez (To Be Angry)
- Arrête de me raconter toutes ces mensonges ! J’ai la moutarde qui me monte au nez (Stop telling me all these lies! I’m really angry/it’s making me really angry)
This colourful idiom is used to express a feeling of anger – it means “to have mustard going up your nose”, which is a perfect description of how you feel when you lose your temper.
#32 Appeler Un Chat Un Chat (To Call A Spade A Spade)
- On peut appeler un chat un chat s’il vous plaît ? Ce n’est pas un cadeau, c’est un pot-de-vin ! (Can we call a spade a spade, please? It’s not a gift, it’s a bribe!)
The literal meaning of this French idiom is “to call a cat a cat”, which is not so different from the English version.
#33 Avoir Un Poil Dans La Main (To Be Lazy, Workshy, Never Lift A Finger)
- Il a vraiment un poil dans la main, celui-là. C’est qu’un gros fainéant qui fait jamais rien! (He never lifts a finger, that one. He’s just a big loafer who never does a thing!)
This French saying literally means “to have a hair in the hand”, and the idea is that the person you’re talking about is so lazy that a hair has grown in their palm because they never do any work.
#34 Coûter Un Bras (To Cost An Arm And A Leg)
- T’as vu sa nouvelle bagnole ? Ça a dû lui coûter un bras ! (Have you seen his new wheels/ride? It must have cost him an arm and a leg!)
The coûter un bras literal translation is “to cost an arm” and is similar to the English expression about costing an arm and leg when something is expensive.
Another possibility is coûter les yeux de la tête, meaning “to cost the eyes from the head”.
Bagnole is a colloquial word for voiture (car).
#35 Boire Comme Un Trou (To Drink Like A Fish)
- Je comprends vraiment pas. Il boit comme un trou mais il est jamais bourré ! (I really can’t understand it. He drinks like a fish, but he never gets drunk!)
In English, if someone drinks a lot, we say they “drink like a fish” – but in French, they say he “drinks like a hole”.
#36 Chercher Midi à 14h (To Complicate Things)
The literal translation of this French idiom is to “search for noon at 2pm” which essentially means to overcomplicate things.
- Tu cherches toujours midi à quatorze heures!
The English counterpart for this one would be, “You're always overcomplicating things!”
#37 Avoir un Chat Dans la Gorge (To Have Something Stuck In Your Throat)
- J'ai un chat dans la gorge. (I've got a frog in my throat)
The idiom means to have something stuck in your throat – either you are nervous and can't speak or genuinely have a cough or sore throat.
#38 S'occuper de Ses Oignons (Mind Your Own Business)
This is a funny way of saying mind your own business, as the literal translation is to take care of your onions! But you use it in the same context as the English counterpart:
- Théo, occupe-toi de tes oignons!
Mind your own business Théo.
Real Idioms That People Use In Day-To-Day Life
In this list, I’ve tried to give you some of the most common French idioms that people really use, along with examples that show you how to use them.
Start by listening out for idiomatic French expressions whenever you hear native speakers talk, and before you know it, you’ll be sprinkling them into your spoken French just like a native and impressing your French friends.
You can also use the StoryLearning® method to pick up these essential idioms easily. As you read stories, especially ones with dialogue like my 101 French Conversations book, you'll start to absorb and use French idioms without having to study or memorise them.