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15 everyday French expressions inspired by animals

Feeling duck cold or like a beaten dog face? Maybe it's because you have the cockroach? There are many French everyday expressions involving animals, and sometimes their meaning be tricky to grasp.

15 everyday French expressions inspired by animals
Photo: AFP

The French language is rich with animal-based vocabulary, much of which is far from self-explanatory.

Here's a list of some common expressions involving several-legged and sometimes furry friends that you are likely to come across if you spend some time in France.

Haleine de chacal

Une haleine de chacal means 'a jackal's breath', and French people use it about people with bad breath. Quelle haleine de chacal! – What a foul breath!


Avoir le cafard

‘Having the cockroach’ in French is a common way of saying ‘I’m feeling blue’, which immediately doesn't seem to make sense (although it's not unlikely that having cockroaches in your home would make you depressed). But really the expression comes from the idea that bad thoughts can get into your head, spread and multiply. Plus, when they do they are really hard to get rid of – like cockroaches in the home.

Un pigeon 

In French, un pigeon – 'a pigeon', like the bird – is someone that you can fool easily. Ah, quel pigeon celui-là ! – What a dumbass that one!

Une dose de cheval 

'A horse's dose' is a French way of saying that something is of ‘a huge amount’ ('enough to sedate a horse'). This expression is often used about medicine, for example when you get antibiotics to cure a flu or cough medicine to get rid of a particularly bad cough. Le medecin lui a préscrit une dose de cheval ! – The doctor prescribed a huge dose (of medicine).

READ ALSO: Eleven truly bizarre French animal-related idioms explained

Doux comme un agneau

Etre doux comme un agneau means 'being soft like a lamb', and it's a way to say that someone is particularly gentle and kind. An English equivalent would be 'they wouldn't hurt a fly'.

Ducks are commonly not seen walking this freely in Paris, but during the coronavirus lockdown they seemed to get more comfortable roaming the streets. Photo: AFP

Froid de canard

Il fait un froid de canard translates to 'it’s duck cold’, which is a French way of saying that it’s really cold.

Inspired by the actual practice of duck hunting, an event that takes place in the autumn and winter, the expression comes from that the hunters have to lie completely still for an extended period of time out in the cold.

Une faim de loup 

In France, 'having the hunger of a wolf' means you're starving. Il a un faim de loup means 'he's hungry like a wolf' and pretty much describes a person that would eat anything, with great gusto

Donner sa langue au chat

This expression translates as 'giving one's tongue to the cat', which means giving up on something. If you are playing a game of cards and you can't do your turn, you can say je donne ma langue au chat – I'll pass.

Une langue de vipère 

Un vipère is 'a viper' in English – a poisonous snake. Having 'a tongue of a viper' is a French expression to say that someone has poisonous tongue – metaphorically, not literally speaking. The expression is used to characterise people who talk badly behind the back of others. Je n'aime pas cette fille, c'est vraiment une langue de vipère. – 'I don't like that girl, she has such a wicked way of talking behind other people's backs'.

La vache !

Directly translated to ‘the cow’, exclaiming la vache is a French way of expressing surprise or admiration, pretty much like the English ‘holy cow!’. It usually follows after a loud oh or ah to underline the astonishment or excitement. 

Say you’re in a bar in France watching a football game and someone scores an unlikely goal, well, feel free to yell oh, la vache! to show that you’re impressed, but also perhaps slightly surprised about what just happened.


Mal de chien

Avoir un mal de chien translates to ‘having a pain of dog’, which can mean two things, either that something is really painful or that someone is struggling (a lot) with a task.

Ca fait un mal de chien ! – It hurts like hell!

J'ai un mal de chien à monter cette armoire – I'm struggling like mad to put up this shelf. (If you have you ever been to Ikea, bought a shelf and tried to put it together yourself, you must be familiar with the concept. It's all blood, sweat and tears until you find yourself swearing at the instruction manual, convinced that someone did this to you on purpose.)

Tête de chien battu

Also a dog related expression, this one literally translates to ‘beaten dog face’. It has nothing to do with actually inflicting pain on a dog, however, it’s really the French equivalent to 'puppy dog eyes'. You know, when someone makes big, sad eyes to apologise for something or to get what they want.

Une poule mouillée

'A wet hen' is French for 'a coward' and you use it to say that someone is 'chickening out' on something. 

Photo: AFP

Fier comme un coq

'Proud as a rooster' in French means exactly that – being extremely proud, strutting about like a well-feathered rooster. (Did you know that the rooster is the French national emblem?)

Être comme un coq en pâte

Another rooster-related expression, this one means 'being like a rooster in paste', which is an referral to an old tradition when particularly fine roosters were smeared with a special paste to conserve their feathers and transported in delicate baskets before they were sold by farmers on the market.


Member comments

  1. Avec froid de canard il y a aussi un froid de gueux. Il y a aussi des variantes plus vulgaires!

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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.