We all know the French are proud of their cuisine – and rightly so. In fact, it seems like they can’t stop talking about food, because culinary terms find their way into some of the quirkiest idioms that crop up in everyday life.
Here are some of our favourites.
1. C’est la fin des haricots – It’s the end of the beans
This saying, which also exists in Italian, dates back to a time when beans were a readily available food which the poorest families could still afford.
So when even the beans had run out, you were in a difficult situation, with nothing left. You can use it when you've run out of options or feel like a situation couldn't get any worse.
2. Avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre – to have the butter and the money to buy butter
This is the French equivalent of 'to have your cake and eat it' – when someone just wants it all ways.
Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel used it when he ran out of patience with the British government during Brexit negotiations. In fact he used the extended form of the phrase saying;
“Ils veulent le beurre, l'argent du beurre et le sourire de la crémière et pas les autres trucs. Non, il y a des valeurs fondamentales en Europe qui sont indissociables.”
“They want the butter, the money to buy butter and the dairymaid's smile and none of the other stuff. No, there are fundamental values in Europe that go hand in hand.”
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3. Quelle sauce on va être mangé – what sauce you will be eaten with
Rather than implying you are about to be eaten by hungry cannibals, this odd phrase is used when you're not sure how something will pan out.
So if you are meeting the French in-laws for the first time and you might say Je ne sais pas à quelle sauce je vais être mangé – I have no idea how they will receive me.
It's also commonly used about political situations where it's just impossible to predict the outcome. You may also use it as a way to say you'll do something 'your way', Je le ferai à ma sauce – I'll do it my way.
4. Avoir un coeur d’artichaut – To have the heart of an artichoke
We're not sure how they found this out, but apparently the French think artichokes make rubbish life partners.
So if you hear someone described as having the heart of an artichoke, you might want to steer clear of dating them; it usually means that they are fickle in love and can never stay faithful for long.
The comparison probably comes from the structure of the vegetable – lots of layers, and a small heart.
5. J’ai la pêche – I have the peach
In English we might say someone is ‘full of beans’, but when a Frenchman is feeling really happy or energetic, we say they’ve got the peach.
And giving someone a peach (donner la pêche) means to uplift someone or cheer them up. And once you taste a perfectly ripe French peach fresh off the tree, you will understand why.
6. Ramener sa fraise – To bring one’s strawberry
If you hear French friends complaining about someone who ‘always brings their strawberry’, you might picture someone with an emotional attachment to fruit.
Odd, sure, but not enough to really annoy anyone. But the actual meaning is closer to ‘sticking one’s nose in’ – it means someone who always gets involved or gives their opinion even when it isn’t wanted or asked for.
7. C'est pas tes oignons – It's not your onions
And on a related related, if you tell something that something is 'not their onions' it means it's none of their business. Really spelled ce n'est pas tes oignons, the French usually scratch the ne in conversation, and sometimes they merely say Pas tes oignons.
Occupe-toi de tes oignons is a great phrase for someone who is butting in to something that is none of their concerns – it means 'mind your own business'.
8. Raconter des salades – To tell salads
English speakers say that liars are ‘telling porkies’, but the diet-conscious French have a healthier expression for ‘lying’, so watch out for anyone with a reputation for 'telling salads'.
9. Beurré – Buttered
If someone tells you they were 'buttered' the previous night, they didn’t have a run-in with a dairy product – they’re trying to show off about how drunk they got.
This is a pun on bourré, which means drunk.
10. En faire tout un fromage – To make a cheese out of something
Cheese is up there with water and oxygen in terms of necessity for French people, so if someone ‘makes a whole cheese of something’ they’re making a big deal of it – usually unnecessarily.
If a dairy worker complains about how much they hate their job, then they're making a cheese out of making cheese. An English equivalent would be ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill’.
11. Oh purée! – Oh, mashed potatoes!
For many language learners, picking up swear words in a foreign language is the most fun bit, but it's easy to neglect the more polite alternatives to les gros mots.
If something goes wrong and you don’t want to offend anyone’s ears, ‘Oh purée!' is roughly equivalent to 'oh bother!'
For some more polite alternatives to swearing, click here.
12. Les carottes sont cuites – The carrots are cooked
You might be surprised to hear someone exclaim in a stressed voice that their carrots are cooked – especially if they're nowhere near the kitchen.
But this expression means something is finished, usually used in a negative sense to say that it’s no longer possible to change anything about it or that all hope is out, c'est trop tard – it's too late.