‘Speak of the devil’ – Why are there so many wolves in the French language?

Long feared as the savage beast lurking in the woods, the wolf has inspired a range of French language expressions that still exist today. Here are some of our favourites.

'Speak of the devil' - Why are there so many wolves in the French language?
Photo: M. Zonderling on Unsplash

Quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue

Directly translated as ‘when you speak of the wolf you see its tail’, this expression is the French version of ‘speak of the devil’. This is no coincidence, back in the day wolf was a feared and dreaded creature in France and some used to say it incarnated the devil.

Use this expression like you would use the English equivalent, that is when someone appears just as they are mentioned in a conversation.

À pas de loup

If a person walks into the room à pas de loup – with wolf’s steps – chances are you won’t notice them straight away. Walking à pas de loup means tiptoeing around.

It can be literally tiptoeing to avoid making noise: Il est entré dans la piece à pas de loup pour ne pas me réveiller, mais ensuite il a fait tomber la lampe. – He tiptoed as he entered the room so as to not wake me up, but then he toppled the lamp.

But it can also be metaphorically as in being ‘discreet’ about a topic. 

Faim de loup

Avoir une faim de loup means ‘to be hungry as a wolf’ and exists in English too. It means to be ‘very hungry’ or ‘starving’ to a degree that you feel like gulping down a whole sheep (or a village).

J’ai un faim de loup aujourd’hui, je ne sais pas ce qui me prend ! – I’m starving today, I don’t know what’s going on with me!

Froid de loup 

This one means ‘wolf-cold’ and sounds a bit odd seeing as wolves have thick fur that you would think keeps them warm in winter.

But the expression doesn’t actually refer to the wolves themselves, according to l’Internaute. The French online dictionary explains that the expression originated in the region of Franche-Comté, near the Swiss Alps.

When the cold north wind blew, the roof tiles made a crackling sound. Locals believed that this was a sign that hungry wolves would emerge from their lairs. In other words it was time to bring domestic animals (and themselves) inside and shut the doors.

The expression means that it’s really cold: il fait un froid de loup ! – It’s freezing!

Another variant of this is froid de canard – duck-cold.

Connu comme le loup blanc

If you’re connu comme le loup blanc – known like the white wolf – you’re pretty famous.

Back in the day, whenever a wolf approached a French village, word spread immediately. Locals, terrified of the devilish beast that they perceived wolf to be, would tell their neighbours, families and friends to watch out. This is how the expression connu comme le loup (known like the wolf) originated back in the 18th century. 

It was only later, in the 19th century, that the blanc (white) was added, according to Expressio, to reinforce the idea that the thing talked about was something truly extraordinary. 

Jeune loup 

A ‘young wolf’ is to the French what a ‘young Turk’ can mean to Anglophones: an ambitious man looking for quick success and is ready to use any means in his possession to achieve it. The full expression is jeune loup aux dents longues – young wolf with long teeth.

French online dictionary l’Internaute describes is as an expression “most frequently used to describe a person with too much of a pushy attitude, ready for all obscenities to satisfy their personal ambitions.”

According to the dictionary the original meaning of the expression, which dates back to the 14th century, was simply ‘to be hungry’.

Loup solitaire

Loup solitaire means ‘lone wolf’, which is what the French – just like English-speakers – call terrorists who seemingly acted alone. But être un loup solitaire (to be a lone wolf) can also mean that you simply like to be alone and do your own thing.

C’est un vrai loup solitaire, celui-là – He’s a real lone wolf, that one.

Se jeter dans la gueule du loup 

This means ‘to throw oneself into the wolf’s mouth’, which is the French version of ‘throw to the wolves,’ in other words exposing someone to grave danger. Se jeter dans la gueule du loup originated back in the 15th century as an expression describing reckless and dangerous behaviour, according to l’Internaute.

Obviously throwing oneself into a wolf’s mouth was regarded as a pretty stupid idea.

Il n’aurait dû rien dire.. Il s’est jeté dans la gueule du loup tout seul, quoi. – He shouldn’t have said anything. He threw himself to the wolves there.

Avoir vu le loup

Avoir vu le loup translates as ‘to have seen the wolf’, but the expression implies having done a little bit more to the ‘wolf’ than throwing a glance at it. We already went through how a young wolf can be used to describe an ambitious man ready to do whatever to get what he wants. Well, in this case, what the man wanted was a young woman and the fact that she’s ‘seen’ him means he got her into bed (yes, we know, the French language is full of sexist expressions).

Back in the 15th century, la danse du loup (the wolf’s dance) was code for ‘making love’ (or ‘having sex’, if you will).

In the 18th century, avoir vu le loup originated as the French version of ‘to lose one’s cherry’ (lose your virginity).

L’Internaute describes it as symbolising wolf hunting, “which is a dangerous sport, and therefore requires a certain level of experience.” So when a young woman first went to bed with a man, this was associated with danger. However, as she gained more experience (lovers?), participating in the hunt became less dangerous.

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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.