Getting ‘Under the Skin’
of the Language
French is a highly idiomatic language, relying on many culturally-specific, non-literal phrases to communicate meaning. The French word for idiom, idiotisme, which can also mean ‘idiocy’, is perhaps highly appropriate, since the figurative, metaphorical meanings of many French phrases are often bizarre and comic.
While the meaning of some idioms can be deduced from a literal translation (‘transparent’ idioms), others make no literal sense at all (‘opaque’ idioms), and this can be baffling to the non-native speaker. But words never exist on their own, and meaning is always about the relationship of words to each other. In the idiom this relationship simply finds its fullest manifestation, and anyone learning French will profit from paying attention to idiomatic expressions and making use of them.
Idioms are also an important locus of the shifting, evolving nature of language, going in and out of fashion quickly, and one can often tell what generation a person belongs to by the idioms they use in everyday speech. Idioms can also be revealing of the industries and preoccupations of a particular culture. Here we study a few groups of idioms.
Animals are a ripe subject for idioms, since they have long been associated with certain qualities – associations which are different from culture to culture. While in English we speak of being ‘stubborn as a mule’, in French mules and donkeys have a stronger association with stupidity.
- Faire l’âne pour avoir du son. – means to play dumb to get what one wants (âne – donkey or ass).
- Comme l’âne de Buridan. – (‘like Buridan’s donkey’) which means to be indecisive. This is a reference to fourteenth century French philosopher Jean Buridan, who was associated with the hypothetical illustration of free will as a donkey, placed in between a pile of hay and a bucket of water, which dies of hunger and thirst since it can’t decide which to choose.
The origins of other animal phrases are less easy to trace.
- Être amis comme cochons. – (Literally ‘to be friends like pigs’) meaning to be ‘as thick as thieves’ (very good friends).
- Il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat. – (Literally ‘there is nothing to whip a cat about’) means that something is ‘no big deal’.
- Avoir d’autres chat à fouetter. – (Literally ‘to have other cats to whip’) is similar to the English phrase ‘to have other fish to fry’.
- S'entendre comme chien et chat. – (s'entendre .– To get along with) has a very similar meaning to the phrase ‘to fight like cat and dog’.
Here we can see that in animal idioms agricultural and domestic beasts – those that people have routinely come into contact with – often become the subject of the phrase.
French gastronomic idioms are very common, perhaps indicating the crucial role the culinary arts play in French national identity.
- C'est la fin des haricots. – (‘That's the end of the beans’) has the same meaning as ‘that’s the last straw’ or ‘that's the end of it’.
- Les carottes sont cuites. – (‘The carrots are cooked’) means ‘I've had it’.
- Avoir part au gâteau. – (Literally ‘to have a slice of the cake’) has an English idiomatic parallel in ‘to have a finger in the pie’.
- C’est du gâteau. – Has exactly the same meaning as ‘it’s a piece of cake’.
Some gastronomic idioms have become commonly-used in English, for example:
- La crème de la crème. – This is used in the French original by English speakers.
- Être tout sucre tout miel.– (‘To be all sugar and honey’) is very similar to the English phrase ‘to be all sweetness and light’ (to be insincerely polite), while ‘mind your own business’ finds a parallel in occupe-toi de tes oignons (‘take care of your own onions’).
- En faisant tout un fromage. – (‘Making a whole cheese out of it’) means to make a big deal out of something.
- Entre la poire et le fromage. – (‘Between the pear and the cheese’) has a very literal meaning, referring to the end of a meal.
These idioms show just how big a part idiomatic expressions can play in human interaction and the language of relationships. Cheese – a defining French gastronomic product – provides a basis for many idioms in French.
Since clothing is often a means of cultural and social communication, indicating status, wealth and occasion, it is a ripe theme for idioms – particularly in France, where clothing and fashion is taken very seriously.
- Être comme cul et chemise. – (‘To be like bottom and shirt’) is a phrase not to be used in polite company (cul – ass), but means to be very close friends – as close as a piece of clothing is to the body.
Gloves have provided a range of idioms in French, just as they have in English (to be ‘hand in glove’ with someone – to work closely together on something, or be complicit with them; ‘fits like a glove’ – used in a range of situations).
- Sans prendre de gants. – (‘Without gloves’) means to not mince one’s words, with gloves here symbolizing precaution and delicacy, and their absence a certain abrasiveness.
- Souple comme un gant.– (‘Supple like a glove’) is to be easygoing.
- retourner quelqu'un comme un gant. – (‘To turn someone like a glove’) means to change someone else’s mind easily (as easily as you would turn a glove inside out). This phrase sometimes replaces gant with the rather less attractive vieille chaussette (‘old sock’).
- Retourner sa veste.– (To change one’s allegiances) to be a turncoat. The image of turning clothing inside out is a powerful one and also appears in the phrase, also used in English.
- Trouver chaussure à son pied. – (‘To find a shoe for one’s foot’) means to find a perfect partner.
Many French idioms involve references to parts of the body, showing just how closely-tied idiomatic expression can be to the essential experiences of being human. Hands are a particularly evocative symbol and appear in many idioms in French.
- Comme les doights de la main.– (‘Like the fingers of a hand’) is another idiom that evokes close friendship.
- Avoir la haute main. – (‘To have the upper hand’) is a phrase also used in English.
- Avoir un poil dans la main. – (Literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’), which means to be lazy – so lazy you never use your hands, and so hair grows on the palms!
The heart is also a powerful image when used in idioms.
- To do something à contre-cœur. – (‘Against the heart’) is to do it unwillingly.
- Avoir un cœur d’artichaut.– (‘To have the heart of an artichoke’) is a clever play on words, which means to be flighty or unreliable.
The heart is also used in phrases which are very similar to English ones.
- Ne pas avoir le cœur à – (‘To not have the heart to’) has largely the same meaning as in English.
- Avoir le cœur sur les levres – (‘To have one’s heart on one’s lips’) has exactly the same meaning as ‘to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve’.
Feet provide the theme for a wealth of idioms:
- Lever le pied. – (To lift one’s feet) is to vanish.
- Couper l’herbe sous le pied.– (To cut the grass from underfoot) is to pull the rug from under someone
- Casser les pieds à quelqu'un.– (To break someone’s feet) means to irritate somebody, and happily doesn’t have anything to do with the literal translation.
Like animals, colors have long cultural associations with certain moods and ideas which make them very well-suited to use in idioms. Red appears in a number of idioms which are shared by the English language:
- Être rouge comme une tomate. – (To be red as a tomato).
- Dérouler le tapis rouge. – (To roll out the red carpet).
- Griller un feu rouge. – (To run a red light).
White too appears in many idioms.
- Marqué d’une pierre blanche. – (Marked with a white stone) has the same meaning as ‘red-letter day’ does in English.
- Avoir carte blanche. – (Meaning to have free rein) is commonly used in English in the original French.
- Blanchir sous le harnais. – (‘To turn gray under the harness’ – to age while working, in other words) means to gain experience.
- Blanchir de l'argent. – (Make illegally obtained money appear legitimately procured) is precisely the same phrase as ‘to launder money’.
The color yellow is associated with cowardice in English (‘to have a yellow belly’), but in French it is associated with false humor.
- Rire jaune– (‘Yellow laugh’) means a false laugh, and comes from the medieval association of the liver, and liver complaints, with bad moods. Since those suffering from conditions of the liver often have a yellow complexion, those who had to force a laugh were associated with yellowness.
Green, as a color of the countryside, is also important.
- To have la main verte. – (‘To have green fingers’ in the British English phrase) is to be skilled in gardening.
- Au diable vert. – (‘To the green devil’) means to travel very far, out into the wilderness.