Popular French idioms

Popular French idioms: Image shows Eiffel Tower at dusk
(Image credit: Getty)

Learning a new language has numerous benefits to offer, especially when you’re taking on a popular language like French. But learning a new language includes much more than just learning vocabulary and grammar. If you want to effectively communicate with natives, you’ll need to know popular idioms and local sayings to have friendly conversations with the people you meet.

Completely new to languages? We'd recommend checking out our list of the best learn French online apps - or having a flick through our guide to the best online learning platforms. These digital-first courses can really help you quickly step up your learning

But if it's French idioms you're after, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a list of eight commonly used French idioms you need to know when learning the language.

1. Ne rien savoir faire de ses dix doigts

English translation: Not knowing how to do anything with one's ten fingers. 

This is a fun way to express frustration when you want to say someone is useless. The phrase literally translates to not knowing how to do anything with one's ten fingers, which means the person is incapable of doing anything. 

Tip: Better to use this with friends and in casual settings, and not in front of your employer when discussing your colleague’s work. 

2. Ça coûte un bras 

English translation: It costs an arm.

If you plan on visiting France, chances are you’ll go shopping in French markets. Imagine you find a super expensive item during one of your shopping trips. How would you express your shock or tell your friend it’s way too expensive? Use 'Ça coûte un bras'. It literally means the item costs an arm and is figuratively used to convey that something is a lot more expensive than expected. 

3. Coûter les yeux de la tête

Closeup on person's eyes

(Image credit: Getty)

English translation: It costs an eye in the head.

Similar to 'Ça coûte un bras', 'Coûter les yeux de la tête' is used to express that something is unreasonably expensive. It’s sort of the French equivalent of “it costs an arm and a leg.” You can use it in shopping situations or even to tell your friend that they purchased something for a way higher price than they should have.

4. Coup de foudre 

English translation: A lightning strike. 

Imagine you’re walking down the streets of France and you meet someone so charming you feel like you’ve been struck by lightning. That’s when you can use 'coup de foudre'. It literally means a lightning strike but is figuratively used to mean falling in love at first sight. 

5. Appeler un chat un chat 

Cat on sofa bed

(Image credit: Getty Images)

English translation: To call a cat a cat. 

Don’t you hate it when people refuse to “call a spade a spade” or "give it to someone straight?” If such a thing happens, you can use 'appeler un chat un chat' which literally means to call a cat a cat. It’s used to ask someone to be honest, to name names, or be upfront about things. For instance, if a friend is using vague language to avoid talking about something bad, you can tell them to “appeler un chat un chat.”

6. Se vendre comme des petits pains 

English translation: To sell like hot bread.

Let’s go back to the shopping scenario. Imagine you’re wandering down the streets of France and find a hot-selling item. What do you say? You use Se vendre comme des petits pains, which literally means something is selling like hot bread. This means, the item is in huge demand and is selling out quickly. 

7. Pas ma tasse de thé 

English translation: Not my cup of tea. 

This is probably one of the most common sayings in English. When we want to express we’re not interested in something, we use “not my cup of tea” in English. In French, you can say 'pas ma tasse de thé'. It means the same thing - that you’re not into something, or something isn’t quite right for you. 

8. Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe 


(Image credit: Getty)

English translation: To arrive with hair in a soup.

Knowingly or unknowingly we have all entered some situation at a super awkward moment. For instance, say you enter the room when a couple is arguing, that would be quite awkward. That’s when you can use 'arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe'. It’s a simple but fun saying to have in your back pocket. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help make the awkward situation better! 

Sakshi Udavant is a freelance writer and journalist, who covers everything from wellness to the latest tech trends. She regularly writes comparison articles and features for Top Ten Reviews, helping readers pick between competitor brands.