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LEARNING FRENCH

‘Cup of tea’ to ‘grass is greener’: How to say English idioms in French

Ever found yourself stuck in the middle of a conversation, trying to figure out how to translate the English idiom that encapsulates exactly what you want to say? Here is how to translate seven popular English expressions into French.

'Cup of tea' to 'grass is greener': How to say English idioms in French
Is this your cup of tea? Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP

We’ve all been there –  in the middle of a conversation in French, maybe it’s going really well this time, and then BOOM. You don’t know how to translate a that one English expression you’re trying to communicate into French.

Here are a few common English expressions translated into French to keep in your back pocket for that moment in the future:

Not my cup of tea

In English, you’d use this expression when something is not quite your thing. Maybe your new French friend invited you to go biking with them, but you’re not really into city biking (and maybe you’re a bit scared of Paris traffic). In English, you might just say “thanks, but that’s not really my cup of tea”.

C’est pas mon tasse de thé (the direct translation of this) is sometimes used, but it’s not the most common form of the expression.

In French, you have a few options:

You could use C’est pas mon genre (pronounced: say pah mohn jahn-ruh) or, for a less formal version, you could replace “genre” with “truc” (thing).

If you want to be a bit more strong, maybe saving this one for an uncomfortable offer you want to decline, you could say Ce n’est pas du tout à mon goût (pronounced: suh nay pah due two ah mohn gew), which literally translates to “It is not at all to my taste.” 

The key thing with these phrases is that you’re not criticising the thing on offer, it’s just not to your personal taste.

Here’s how you might use it in a sentence:

Merci pour l’invitation au concert, mais malheureusement, le heavy metal n’est pas mon genre. – Thank you for your invitation to the concert, but unfortunately heavy metal is not my cup of tea.

Feeling under the weather

As allergy season flares, many of us have probably thought of using this phrase once or twice.

Trying to describe the feeling of being a bit sick, but not totally unwell is tricky in French. You could go with the usual je ne suis pas en forme (pronounced: juh nuh sweez pah ahn form), which basically means “I am not in good shape.”

Another option is to just say je me sens un peu malade (pronounced: juh muh sahn uhn puh mal-ahd) which literally means “I feel a little ill.”

If you want a more fun option, you could also use the French idiom je ne suis pas dans mon assiette (Juh nuh swee pah dahn mohn ah-see-ette), which, when translated literally, means I am not in my plate.

Here’s how you’d use it in a sentence:

J’ai eu le nez qui coule toute la journée. Je ne suis pas en forme aujourd’hui – I have had a runny nose all day. I am feeling under the weather.

Beat around the bush

Trying to get someone to just speak their mind, but the conversation keeps avoiding the point? You just want to tell them to ‘stop beating around the bush’ and maybe you’ve maybe wondered whether there is a way to say this in French during a spam call trying to offer you a new gas service.

Surprising for a nation that has made direct speech into an art form (do not ask a French person if your new haircut makes you look like Elton John unless you’re prepared to hear their honest opinion), French actually has a few of its own idioms for this phenomenon.

Ne pas y aller par quatre chemins (pronounced: nuh pah ee ale-ay pahr kat-ruh shuh-mahns). This expression dates all the way back to the 17th century, and it literally means “do not go there by four different routes.” If you want someone to be a bit more efficient with their words, this will work perfectly.

Another option would be to say Tourner autour du pot (pronounced: tore-nay oh tore due poe) which would be used when you want to describe someone who was beating around the bush. 

Here’s how you’d use it in a sentence:

Elle a hésité à me raconter toute l’histoire. Elle a tourné autour du pot – She hesitated to tell me the full story. She was beating around the bush.

Il a refusé d’être franc avec moi, alors je lui ai dit de ne pas y aller par quatre chemins différents – He refused to be blunt with me, so I told him not to beat around the bush.

You can also use the phrase “Allez droit au but” which means ‘go directly to the goal’ or get straight to the point.

Elephant in the room

It’s the subject that everyone in the room knows about but no-one wants to point out. If you’ve ever wondered how to reference a situation that felt like there was ‘an elephant in the room’ in French, some French people actually use the exact French translation of this phrase (l’éléphant dans le salle).

If you want to use a French idiom, you could use the phrase “secret de polichinelle” (pronounced: suh-cray duh poh-lee-shee-nell), which is a reference to a children’s show where the bad guy would hide very obviously behind the good guy. It carries a similar meaning of something being obvious, though unspoken. It more exactly translates to “open secret.”

Here is how you would use it in a sentence:

Nous savions tous que Sarah avait l’intention de démissionner bientôt. C’était un secret de polichinelle – We all knew Sarah was planning to quit soon. it was an open secret.

Rule of thumb

The kind of rule that you don’t need to learn in school, it’s just the widely accepted way to go about something.

In French, you could use either “règle d’or” (pronounced: reh-gluh door) “principe de base” (pronounced: prahn-seep duh baz) or “principe général” (pronounced: prahn-seep jen-eh-rail) to say this phrase.

Here is how you might use it in a sentence:

La règle de base pour manger au restaurant aux États-Unis est de ne pas oublier de donner un pourboire à votre serveur – The rule of thumb for eating out in the United States is to remember to tip your server.

The grass is always greener

This phrase may come up a lot in the life of a new arrival: when you’re in your home country it may feel that the grass is greener in France, and again vice versa when you’re back in France. Similar to elephant in the room, French people also use the direct translation of this phrase (l’herbe est toujours plus verte).

But if you want to replicate this idiom in French in a different way you can simply use the phrase “on croit toujours que c’est mieux ailleurs” (pronounced: ohn cwah two jor keh say mee-uh aye-yers).

This literally means “we always believe that it is better elsewhere.”

Here is how to use it next time you’re a bit homesick:

Chaque fois que je suis chez moi aux États-Unis, les croissants de France me manquent. On croit toujours que c’est mieux ailleurs – Whenever I am home in the United States I miss croissants in France, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Spill the tea

This one is an hommage to the millennial and Gen-Z readers out there.

If you haven’t heard “spill the tea” in English before, it essentially means “share the gossip” or “tell the dirty details.”

If you are looking to get your French coworker to tell you the latest office gossip, you could use the phrase “Racontez-moi les potins” (pronounced: rah-cont-eh muah lay poe-tans), which means tell me the gossip. You could also use 

Here is how you would use it in a sentence:

Je veux entendre ce qui s’est passé à l’after work la semaine dernière. Raconte-moi les potins ! – I want to hear about what happened at the work happy hour last week. Spill the tea!

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PROPERTY

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

Plumbing ermergencies are common in France, so here's our guide to what to do, who to call and the phrases you will need if water starts gushing in unexpected areas.

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

How do I find a reliable plumber and avoid getting scammed?

First, try to stick with word-of-mouth if you can. Contact trusted individuals or resources, like your neighbours and friends, or foreigner-oriented Facebook groups for your area (ex. “American Expats in Paris”). This will help you find a more reliable plumber. If this is not an option for you, try “Pages Jaunes” (France’s ‘Yellow Pages’) to see reviews and plumbers (plomberie) in your area. 

Next, educate yourself on standard rates. If the situation is not an emergency, try to compare multiple plumbers to make sure the prices are in the correct range. 

Finally, always Google the name of the plumber you’ll be working with – this will help inform you as to whether anyone else has had a particularly positive (or negative) experience with them – and check that the company has a SIRET number.

This number should be on the work estimate (devis). You can also check them out online at societe.com. If you want to be extra careful you can also ask to see their carte artisan BTP (craftsman card). 

READ MORE: What is a SIRET number and why is it crucial when hiring French tradesmen?

Who is responsible for paying for work?

If you own the property, you are typically the one who is responsible for financing the plumbing expenses.

However if you’re in a shared building, you must determine the cause and location of the leak. If you cannot find the origin of the leak, you may need a plumber to come and locate it and provide you with an estimate. You can use this estimate when communicating with insurance, should the necessity arise. 

If you are a renter, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most of the time, water damage should be the landlord’s responsibility, but there are exceptions.

The landlord is obliged to carry out major repairs (ex. Natural disaster, serious plumbing issues) that are necessary for the maintenance and normal upkeep of the rented premises (as per, Article 6C of the law of July 6, 1989). The tenant, however, is expected to carry out routine maintenance, and minor repairs are also to be paid by the tenant. If the problem is the result of the tenant failing to maintain the property, then it will be the tenant’s responsibility to cover the cost of the repair.

Legally speaking, it is also the tenant’s responsibility to get the boiler serviced once a year, as well as to maintain the faucets and joints, and to avoid clogging the pipes.

READ MORE: Assurance habitation: How to get home insurance in France

If you end up in dispute with your landlord over costs, you can always reach out to ADIL, the national Housing Association which offers free legal advice for housing issues in France. 

What happens if the leak is coming from my neighbour’s property?

Both you and your neighbour should contact your respective housing insurance companies and file the ‘sinistre’ (damage) with them.

If you both agree on the facts you can file an amiable (in a friendly fashion), then matters are much more simple and you will not have to go through the back-and-forth of determining fault.

If having a friendly process is not possible, be sure to get an expert to assert where the leak is coming from and file this with your insurance company.

As always, keep evidence (lists and photographs) of the damage. Keep in mind that many insurance providers have a limited number of days after the start of the damage that you can file. Better to do it sooner than later, partially because, as with most administrative processes in France, it might take a bit of time.

Vocab

Plumbing has its own technical vocabulary so here are some words and phrases that you’re likely to need;

Hello, I have a leak in my home. I would like to request that a plumber come to give me an estimate of the damage and cost for repairs – Bonjour, j’ai une fuite chez moi. Je voudrais demander qu’un plombier vienne me donner une estimation des dégâts et du coût de la réparation. 

It is an emergency: C’est une urgence

I have no hot water: Je n’ai pas d’eau chaude

The boiler has stopped working: La chaudière ne fonctionne plus.

I cannot turn my tap off: Je ne peux pas arrêter le robinet.

The toilet is leaking: Mes toilettes fuient.

The toilet won’t flush/ is clogged: Mes toilettes sont bouchées

There is a bad smell coming from my septic tank: Il y a un mauvaise odeur provenant de ma fosse septique

I would like to get my electricity / boiler safety checked: Je souhaiterais une vérification de la sécurité de mon installation électrique / de ma chaudière

I can smell gas: Ca sent le gaz

My washing machine has broken: Ma machine a laver est cassée

Can you come immediately? Est-ce que vous pouvez venir tout de suite?

When can you come? Quand est-ce que vous pouvez venir?

How long will it take? Combien de temps cela prendra-t-il ?

How much do you charge? Quels sont vos prix? / Comment cela va-t-il coûter?

How can I pay you? Comment je peux vous payer ? 

Here are the key French vocabulary words for all things plumbing-related:

Dishwasher – Lave vaisselle

Bath – Baignoire

Shower – Douche

Kitchen Sink – Évier

Cupboard – Placard

Water meter – Compteur d’eau

The Septic Tank – La fosse septique

A leak – Une fuite

Bathroom sink – Le lavabo

The toilet – La toilette

Clogged – Bouché

To overflow – Déborder

A bad smell – Une mauvaise odeur

The flexible rotating tool used to unclog a pipe (and also the word for ferret in French) – Furet 

Water damage – Dégât des eaux

The damage – Le sinistre

And finally, do you know the French phrase Sourire du plombier? No, it’s not a cheerful plumber, it’s the phrase used in French for when a man bends down and his trouser waistband falls down, revealing either his underwear or the top of his buttocks. In English it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.

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