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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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. They're just using some of the quirky turns of phrase that'll help you to blend in seamlessly with the locals.

Fat mornings and whipping cats: 10 idioms to help you sound more French
Have you been breaking sugar? Photo by Robert Anderson on Unsplash

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, to break sugar on someone's back, 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, the equivalent in French is to cost the eyes of the head.

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

READ ALSO The nine French phrases you need to be very, very careful when pronouncing


This brand new Lamborghini will cost you the eyes of your head. Photo: AFP 

4. “Avoir d'autres chats à fouetter”

Animal lovers, don't be alarmed. Although this expression literally means to have other cats to whip, it translates 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 it's 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.

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/ to be angry.

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

READ ALSO The nine best French insults (for use when you're very, very cross)


Does the one on the right look sweaty to you? Photo: AFP

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.

10. “Rester de marbre”

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

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

The majority of idioms that are used in English 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 some 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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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