Idioms are a vital part of any language, and French is no different. We often underestimate the number of idioms we use day-to-day, and getting the hang of them is going to be vital in mastering a language.
Not sure what an idiom is? Think of expressions in English such as “by the skin of your teeth” or “having the blues”. These phrases have established meanings that we all understand, even if the words themselves do not directly correlate to the meaning.
Once you’ve learnt enough French for basic communication, idioms are the next step to elevating your French to upper-intermediate and eventual fluency. Idioms are so important to learn because they are used constantly, and their meanings often cannot be guessed, even in context.
Here are some of the most common French idioms that you might hear in everyday conversation that are essential to know. How many have you heard already?
1. Jeter un coup d’oeil - This is a very common expression, and the French equivalent of the English phrase “to take a look”.
Example: “Tu peux jeter un coup d’oeil à ce document?” - “Could you take a look at this document?”
2. Faire la grasse matinée - the literal translation would be “to have a fat morning”, which is quite a nice way of expressing the actual meaning of this expression: to have a lie-in, or to sleep in.
Example: “C’était samedi, alors j’ai pu faire la grasse matinée, c’était trop bien” - “It was Saturday, so I could have a lie-in, it was so good.”
3. Boire un coup/boire un verre - These two expressions are interchangeable, and both are colloquial ways of saying to go for a drink, though “boire un coup” is more familiar than “verre”.
Example: “Tu veux aller boire un coup ce soir?” - “Do you want to go for a drink tonight?”
4. Avoir la gueule de bois - An appropriate follow-up to when “un verre” becomes too many, this is the French term for being hungover. Though the term, literally meaning “a mouth of wood”, suggests a dry mouth, which can certainly be a symptom of being hungover, avoir la gueule de bois is used to denote the overall experience of a hangover, encompassing all undesirable physical manifestations.
Example: “J’ai trop bu hier soir, et maintenant j’ai la gueule de bois” - “I drank too much last night and now I’m hungover."
5. Faire gaffe - often used in the imperative - this strange little expression means to be careful, or watch out. This is strange because the literal meaning suggests the opposite, as a “gaffe” is a blunder, or mistake, so “faire une gaffe” would mean to make a mistake. However, when the expression is used without the article “une”, its meaning changes to one of being cautious.
Example: “Faut faire gaffe, hein!” - “You’d better be careful!”
6. Etre crevé - This means to be exhausted. The verb crever, which means literally to die, can also be used to describe an extreme state of something, when this is specified (see examples below), but when used alone with être, it means extremely tired.
Example: “Je crève de faim” - I’m starving; “Je crève d’envie de le faire” - “I’m dying to do it”.
7. Pleuvoir des cordes - the French companion to the English phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs”, this idiom means it is raining heavily.
Example: “Il pleut de cordes, je me suis fait trempé!” - “It’s raining cats and dogs, I got soaked!”
8. Avoir la flemme - this is simply the French way of saying “I can’t be bothered”.
Example: “J’ai la flemme de faire le ménage maintenant” - I can’t be bothered to tidy up now.
9. Donner un coup de main - similar to the English equivalent, this expression means to “give a hand”, in the sense of helping someone out.
Example: “Jean va déménager demain, je vais lui donner un coup de main” - Jean is moving house tomorrow, I’m going to give him a hand.
10. En avoir marre - this means to be fed up of something. An alternative and equivalent expression would be “en avoir ras de bol”
Example: “Il est toujours en retard, j’en ai marre!” /
“Il est toujours en retard, j’en ai ras de bol!” - “he’s always late, I’m fed up with it!”
So there you have it, 10 idioms that are must-knows for survival in French. What other idioms would you consider essential?
Teresa is a writer, polyglot, traveller, language teacher and dancer from London. She blogs at theeurofiles.com where she shares her love for the languages and cultures of Europe.