How to say your favourite English sayings in French

Ever find yourself stuck for words in French while trying to translate a phrase? Worry no more.

How to say your favourite English sayings in French
An apple a day... Photo: Patr!c!a/Flickr
A direct translation of an English phrase won't always cut the mustard in French. 
In fact, if you translated the previous sentence with “couper la moutarde”, you'll only get blank looks from a French person. It's better to say c'est pas à la hauteur, (which literally means “it's not high enough”). 
Anyway, in the interests of helping you sound more French, here are the French equivalents of 14 standard English phrases. Good luck using them. 
The straw that broke the camel's back
C'est la goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase
Forget the camel, the French talk about “the drop of water that made the vase overflow” when they're at their final straw. 
Photo: The Rohit/Flickr
I fell head over heels in love
C'était le coup de foudre.
Falling in love happens with a lightning bolt, at least in the French language. “When I met Fabienne it was a lightning bolt,” they'll say. 
He stood me up!
Il m'a posé un lapin!
Literally: “He put a rabbit on me.” Paying for something with a rabbit was a sign of poverty hundreds of years ago, or at least that's how the story goes. Leaving a rabbit for someone was initially a sign of not being able to pay, and later became a sign of not showing up at all. 

An apple a day keeps the doctor away  
Une pomme par jour, en forme toujours
The French version of this also rhymes like its English cousin and literally means: “An apple a day and you're always in fine form”. There's another more sinister version: 
La pomme du matin tue le médecin or “The morning apple kills the doctor”. Blimey. 
Photo: Patr!c!a/Flickr
To call a spade a spade 
Il faut appeler un chat un chat
In French you don't call a spade a spade, you call a cat a cat. Obviously. 
It cost me an arm and a leg!
Coûter les yeux de la tête
Not sure which version is the goriest here, but while something expensive costs the English speakers an arm and a leg, it costs the French “the eyes from my head”.
I've put my foot in it!
Se mettre le doigt dans l'œil
Yikes, the French really have a thing for eye injuries. This saying translates to “to put your finger in your eye”. 
Photo: Mr Seb/Flickr
To get on someone's nerves
Casser les pieds à quelqu'un
You don't get on a French person's nerves, you break their feet.
Can we just meet halfway?
Couper la poire en deux
When the English might suggest a fairer divide of something, they might say “meet me halfway”. The French say “let's cut the pear in half.”
Going round in circles. 
Pédaler dans la semoule
Ever get the feeling that you're just treading water? Well in French you might say that you're “pedaling in the semolina”.
He has one foot in the grave
Sentir le sapin
When someone hasn't got long left in this world, you might say they “smell of fir trees”, a saying that comes from the fact that many coffins are made of fir tree wood. 
Photo: Joe/Flickr
To drink like a fish
Boire comme un trou
To be fair this doesn't make sense in English or French really. While the English speakers drink like a fish, the French drink like a hole. 
I could do it “with my eyes closed”
Avec les doigts dans le nez
The French don't do simple things with their eyes closed, they do it with their fingers in their nose. 
I'm down in the dumps
J'ai le cafard
If you're down or depressed you can say “you have the cockroach”. 
Photo: tom spinker/Flickr

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.