Eleven truly bizarre French animal-related idioms explained

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Eleven truly bizarre French animal-related idioms explained
Why do so many expressions involve sheep? Photo: baronb/Depositphotos"

How do you react when your French friends advise you to return to your sheep? And what about when they arrange to meet you between the dog and the wolf?


There's certainly no shortage of curious French phrases that draw on the animal world for inspiration, and naturally these can lead to confusion and alarm among those in the early stages of learning the language. 

Here are eleven of our favourites, from the poetic to the impolite, explained for non-natives.

Quand les poules auront des dents | When hens have teeth

This bizarre image is simply a fancy way of saying ‘never’ or ‘not a chance!’, equivalent to ‘when pigs fly’ in English or ‘when fish fly’ in German.

The phrase has been in use since the 18th century and it’s unclear why the French picked toothy chickens as the symbol of unlikeliness. In fact, it may not have been the wisest decision, since recent scientific research suggests chickens have retained the genes which allow them to grow teeth, meaning it might not be as unrealistic as you’d think...

Avoir des yeux de merlan frit | To have eyes like a fried whiting [fish]

Photo: Iryna Kondrashova/Depositphotos

This expression sounds strange but is much more literal than the others on the list. It’s used to describe someone with a wide-eyed look, similar to that of a fried fish.

Centuries ago, it generally referred to young men gazing at their sweethearts, but now it's generally used to convey a more negative meaning, describing someone with an idiotic or gawking expression, or occasionally someone who's hungover or ill.

Poser un lapin | To place a rabbit

When you finally get asked on a date by that dashing Frenchman or woman, just hope they don’t 'place a rabbit'. Not only because it’s a rather creepy gift for a first date, but because in French, it means ‘to stand someone up’.

Dating back to the 1800’s, it isn’t just used in romantic contexts, but for any appointment someone fails to turn up for.

Laisser pisser les mérinos | To let the sheep pee

This phrase roughly translates as ‘going with the flow’, or not getting worked up about a situation. It dates back to at least the 19th century, and is thought to derive from the fact that sheep and cattle often have trouble urinating while on the move.

On long journeys drivers were forced to make several stops to let the animals do their business, meaning they couldn’t get too uptight about sticking to their schedule. In earlier instances, the word 'bete' (beast) was used instead of 'merino', which was probably chosen because the wool of that breed was in fashion at the time.

Entre chien et loup | Between the dog and the wolf

Photo: anjajuli/Depositphotos

Perhaps the most poetic phrase on this list and dating back to the 2nd century AD, 'entre chien et loup' has no equivalent in English. It refers to dusk, the time of day when the light is so low you might not be sure whether you’re looking at a dog or a wolf.

But it’s not just about the dim light: it carries a slightly sinister undertone of mystery, presenting dusk as a time when nothing is quite what it seems and the ordinary can become the unknown. In legends, dusk is often the period of time when strange and magical things happen, as suggested in the similar English phrase 'the witching hour'.

Avoir le cafard | To have the cockroach

It’s thought that poet Charles Baudelaire came up with this expression, which means 'to be in a gloomy mood'. Well, wouldn’t you be, if you had the cockroach? It’s a fitting metaphor, because of the way that a bad mood can sneak into your mind and then take hold, just like cockroaches in a house.

'Cafard' has a long history of being synonymous with negativity in the French language; earlier, it was used to describe people who were traitors, sneaks, or lacking in morality.

Arriver comme un chien dans un jeu de quille | To arrive like a dog in a bowling game

Photo: eldadcarin/Depositphotos

The French take games of skittles or boules rather seriously, so you can imagine the reaction if a rogue dog turns up, scattering the pins everywhere and ruining an afternoon's fun. This idiom is used when something happens at the worst possible moment - you can also compare it to 'un cheveu sur la soupe' (a fly in the soup) which surely needs no explanation.

Comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau | Like a chicken who’s found a knife

If someone uses this term to describe you, don’t worry, they’re not really comparing you to a bird on a murderous rampage. It simply means 'confused' - after all, why would a chicken need cutlery? Maybe if hens had teeth...

Parler français comme une vache espagnole | To speak French like a Spanish cow

Photo: mihtiander/Depositphotos

Unfortunately, when you're learning the language you might be on the receiving end of this phrase, which basically means your French is incomprehensible.

It probably comes from a mistranslation of an Occitan phrase meaning 'mountaineer', referring to seasonal workers the locals struggled to understand.

Revenons à nos moutons | Let's get back to our sheep

This expression means 'to get back to the matter at hand'. Picture a group of shepherds whiling away the morning chattering, then realizing the time and deciding they've got to get back to tending to the sheep. But actually, the idiom has a different origin.

It comes from a medieval play which involves two legal cases relating to sheep and bedsheets. The protagonist of the farce tries to throw the judge off course by talking about the bedsheet case when they should be discussing sheep, forcing the judge to repeat the phrase.

Peigner la girafe | To comb the giraffe

When your co-worker says it’s time to comb the giraffe, it doesn’t mean your office has got a new and exciting pet. Quite the opposite: giraffes' long necks and manes would make combing them a cumbersome operation, so 'peigner la girafe' is what the French say when referring to a task that’s usually lengthy, dull, and often ultimately pointless.



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