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Get Playful with this List of French Expressions

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

In the next few months, we’ll outline some of the populations around the world who speak French. These range from Switzerland to Senegal, Congo to our own Quebec. Each one has their own unique culture and dialect that has shifted through time. Like English-speaking populations, these Francophone countries have slang and expressions with figurative meanings. Think of ‘easy as pie’ - someone just learning English may not quite understand what that means! Pie isn’t, after all, that easy to make. But as a native English speaker, we’ve gotten so used to these expressions that we know what they mean without really considering the words themselves. The same is true in French. That’s why we’ve created a list of French expressions to help you cope with different dialects and cultures.

Close to Home: Quebec Expressions

Let’s start this list of French expressions somewhere close to home: Quebec.

One of our favourites is one that we should all remind ourselves as we continue to battle through this pandemic: ‘se prendre pour le boss des bécosses.’ Or, ‘take yourself for the boss of the bécosses.’ But what does that mean? Well, in simpler English: Act like a boss.

Another particularly fun one is ‘parler à travers son chapeau’: ‘talking through your hat.’ And its meaning? Talking about something you hardly know about.

If you didn’t sleep well, you’d say, ‘passer la nuít sur la corde à linge’: ‘spending the night on the clothesline.’ This may mean that a lot of things ‘pogner les nerfs’ (get on your nerves). Try to keep yourself patient though and ‘attache ta tuque avec de la broche.’ Tie your hat with a brooch - things are going to be difficult!

For those friends who are scared of haunted houses and scary movies, instead of calling them a ‘coward’ you’d say ‘être un pissou’ - to be a ‘pissou’ or to be fearful.

After a long week, you may just want to ‘se lâcher lousse’ - ‘let go.’ Letting loose could help you ‘être aux oiseaux’ - be with the birds! In other words, be delighted and joyful. Perhaps you think that’s ‘c’est quétaine!’ (a bit cheesy). In our English, it’s old-fashioned.

Over to West Africa: Ivorian Expressions

Remember that French isn’t just limited to Canada, France, and Switzerland - it is spread throughout Africa as well, remnants of French colonialism. The Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire, is a West African country with its own unique culture and French dialect. Here’s a list of French expressions that can be found there.

When you ‘poser sa candidature’ (literal translation: apply), or declare your love to someone, you may experience ‘avoir le cœur tombé dans le caleçon.’ Literally this means ‘having your heart that fell into your underwear’, or having strong emotions. Let’s hope it doesn’t go poorly! Or else your paramour may end up ‘mettre sur un petit vélo’ - put you on a small bike, or break up.

Hopefully this won’t make you untrustworthy though, or mean you ‘avoir deux bouches’ - have two mouths, or be a liar or hypocrite.

List of French Expressions from Switzerland

We’ve all hesitated right? In Switzerland ‘être sur le balan’ means to ‘be on the balan’, or to hesitate.

Have you heard the term bazinga? Well, you may like this next expression then! To walk sideways, or in a zigzag, in Switzerland is ‘aller de bizingue’ - literally, ‘go bizingue.’ If you’re walking a little slantwise, it may be time for a nap. In Switzerland, you might say it’s time to ‘faire un clopet’ - literally, make a clopet. Or perhaps you’d say it’s time for se réduire - to ‘reduce yourself,’ or, go to sleep. This also can mean to ‘go home.’

Another interesting phenomenon - ‘avoir la gratte’, or ‘to have itchy’. What we’d say simply, to be itchy, or have an itch. Slightly dramatic as well is ‘avoir une gonfle au pied’, or ‘have a swelling of the foot.’ What does this mean? A blister! If this happens you may ‘faire la potte’ - ‘make the potte,’ or, sulk.

List of French Expressions

Here are some more general French expressions that you may come across - particularly if you’re in France, or listening to any French music or movies.

If you hear that someone is ‘se tenir à carreaux’ this means they are ‘keeping check’, or on guard. This may be because they’re protecting against ‘se faire rouler dans la farine’ - being rolled in flour, or to be duped. Maybe by someone who is ‘raconter des salades’? ‘Telling salads,’ or, telling stories and lies. We hope if that happens you’ll ‘découvrir le pot aux roses’ - discover the pot of roses, or the secret.

One French expression that is quite similar to our English equivalent is: ‘monter sur ses grands chevaux’, which means to ride, or be, on their high horse. Likewise, ‘jeter l’argent par les fenêtres’ - throwing money down the drain. Spending all that money may make you ‘être lessivé’ - be leached, or exhausted.

The last one we’ll leave you with is the French version of agreeing wholeheartedly: ‘en mettre sa main au feu’ - to put your hand in the fire.

This list of French expressions may have seemed a bit odd to English speakers - certainly some of them are rather different than ours. These offer insight into the romantic, playful, personal aspects of French-speaking cultures across the globe, and we simply love them. If you or your student are curious about other day-to-day French expressions, speak to your FranceABC tutor about how you can work these into lessons.

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