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Fat mornings and whipping cats: 10 idioms to help you sound more French

The Local France
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Fat mornings and whipping cats: 10 idioms to help you sound more French
Sugar on a table in northern France. You might be surprised by the French expressions involving sugar. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

If you happen to overhear people in France talking about whipping cats or breaking sugar on someone's back, don't worry - they haven't lost the plot. Here are some of the quirky turns of phrase that'll help you to blend in seamlessly with the locals.

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1. "Faire la grasse matinée"

This lovely expression literally means 'to do the fat morning', but it's got nothing to do with croissants. It actually means to sleep in. If you really want to sound like a local, you can shorten it to faire la grasse mat.

Example: Je suis allé à un concert hier soir, alors aujourd'hui j'ai fait la grasse matinée - I went to a concert last night so today I had a lie in.

2. "Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu'un"

Your ears should prick up if you hear this in your office. Literally it would be 'to break sugar on someone's back', but this one actually means gossiping about someone behind their back.

Example: Lucie n'a pas arrêté de casser du sucre sur le dos de Margaux. Je pense qu'elle la déteste! - Lucy has not stopped gossiping about Margaux behind her back. I think she really hates her!

3. "Coûter les yeux de la tête"

You might be able to guess this one. Whereas in English, you might say something cost you an arm and a leg if it was really expensive, an arm is enough for the French, or just coûter un bras.

More commonly, you will hear the phrase 'to cost the eyes of the head' to describe something that is very expensive.

Example: Sa nouvelle voiture l'a coûté les yeux de la tête! - Her new car cost her an arm and a leg.

READ MORE: How the French really use 'voilà'

4. "Avoir d'autres chats à fouetter"

Animal lovers, don't be alarmed. Although this expression literally translates as 'to have other cats to whip', it actually means as to have better things to do/ to have other fish to fry.

Example: Il m'a invité au cinema, mais j'ai d'autres chats à fouetter. - He invited me to the cinema, but I have other things to do.

5. "Appeler un chat un chat"

Sticking with the cat theme, this one literally translates as 'to call a cat a cat', but its equivalent in English is to call a spade a spade, i.e to say it like it is.

Example: Soyons suffisamment honnêtes pour appeler un chat un chat - Let's be honest enough say it like it is.

6. "Transpire comme un boeuf"  

This one is useful in a heatwave. You don't sweat like a pig in French, you sweat like a bullock.

Example: Je transpirais comme un boeuf pendant la canicule - I was sweating like a pig during the heatwave.

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7. "S'occuper de ses oignons" 

Onions are a big deal in France, but while this one translates literally as 'to take care of one's onions', it actually means to mind one's own business.

Example: Je n'ai pas besoin de tes conseils, occupe-toi de tes oignons! - I don't need your advice, mind your own business!

8. "Avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez"

This literally means to have mustard going up your nose, but it's got nothing to do with messy eaters. It translates as 'to lose your temper' or 'to be angry'.

Example: Il ne faudrait pas que la moutarde te monte au nez! - We should not lose our tempers!

9. "Mettre son grain de sel"

Whereas English speakers might use the American phrase to 'give one's two cents' or maybe 'give your two penn'orth' meaning to offer an unsolicited opinion, in French you put one's grain of salt.

Beware! It's not the same as the English phrase to take something with a pinch of salt meaning to apply a little healthy skepticism to a situation. In French that would be prendre (quelque chose) avec des pincettes or 'to take it with tweezers'.

Example: Paul m'énerve. Il met toujours son grain de sel - Paul pisses me off, he's always giving his two cents.

READ MORE: Ten very French ways to say you don't care

10. "Rester de marbre"

This is a useful one for the cold-hearted. Literally it is 'to stay marble', but the phrase actually means to remain indifferent or impassive.

Example: Je suis resté de marbre malgré ses insultes - I stayed calm despite the insults.

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What about the French equivalents of English idioms?

The majority don't directly translate into French.

Try telling a French person that a particular thing is pas ma tasse de thé and you'll get a confused look (if you want to say that something isn't for you you'd be better using the phrase c'est pas mon truc - it's not my thing).

However there are a couple everyday saying or phrases that do translate exactly into French. 

"Se serrer la ceinture"

To tighten one's belt, meaning to spend less money.

"Clair comme du cristal"

Crystal clear.

"Prendre le taureau par les cornes"

To take the bull by the horns.

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Comments (1)

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Mary Jane Wilkie 2024/06/12 16:23
Just to add to the riches in the article, I propose "Other fish to fry" for "Chats à fouetter." Also, Americans say, "I slept in" for "grasse matinée. By the way, for No. 5, it's "its equivalent" not "it's."

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