Funny French Expressions That Can’t Be Translated But Will Make You Laugh

French ExpressionsIf you are a reader of this blog, you may have heard me say or write that the French language has many more common and slang expressions than English does. I’m not just saying.  It’s just true. I guess it’s the nature of the langue.

French folks are notorious to be good at speaking in a very slangish way.  when I hear it in movies, for example, it really makes me feel home. This way of speaking has been around for decades now.

But if you went back 80 to 100 years, then slang would be almost non- existent.

It all really started around the end of WWII. However, on top of the slang, the French language is also full of expressions that are much older than slang.

As a matter of fact, some of them have their English equivalent, but not all. In the post I am going to discuss some of  those French expressions that really can’t be translated literally, but they’ll  make you laugh.  Then, I’ll give you their English equivalent if there is one, or tell you what they mean. So, here we go…

Avoir la Gueule de Bois (to have a wooden face)

Here the word “geule” is the slang word for face, I might add. The true word for face in French is “visage.” Avoir la gueule de bois means to be drunk. Il a la geule de bois means he’s drunk. The expression started because when drunk people have a dry mouth like wood. It’s a very common slang French expression. I don’t think there is an equivalent for this one in English.

Avoir un Chat dans la Gorge (to have a cat in the throat)

You may hear someone say “j’ai un chat dans la gorge” which literally mean I have a chat in my throat which in this case, it’s the equivalent of “I have a frog in my throat.” It means the same thing in French as it does in English. Somehow English speaking people got a frog as for the French speaking people got a cat. Even though a cat would be even much more uncomfortable.

Donner sa Langue au Chat (to give one’s tongue to the cat)

French have lots of expression with the word cat. Je donne ma langue au chat, which means, I give my tongue to the cat, means that you can’t find the answer to a quiz question, and are requiring the answer. It’s the equivalent in English of saying, I give up, but I can’t think of an English expression that means that. So here again, no equivalent in English. This expression comes from the fact that in ancient times, the cat was believed to be the guardian of secrets. Thus giving your tongue to the cat, means you need that secret to be revealed to you and put in your tongue. So crazy, don’t you think?

Chat Echaudé Craint l’Eau Froide (Warmed up cat doesn’t like cold water)

This is an expression that my mother used to say all the time.  I remember that when I was very little I didn’t have a clue of what that meant. One day as my mother was using this expression one more time, I asked, what the heck did this expression meant? It means that if you’ve had a bad experience about something, you’ll be careful the next time around if you find yourself in the same type of situation. Why cat again? I don’t know, maybe French people like cats.  I don’t think there is an equivalent expression in English. But if there is one, let me know.

Oh la Vache (how the cow)

The one is the equivalent of holy cow in English. It means the same thing in French, and it used in the same type situation; surprise and amazement about something you didn’t expect, or scary, etc.

Avoir une Peur Bleu (To have a blue fear)

This mean to be really scared of something to almost the level of phobia.  This expression makes a bit more sense the ones above, because a shock can cause a lack of oxygen in the blood which makes the skin look bluish, especially on the lips.  Thus, the expression “avoir une peur bleu.” Can’t think of an equivalent in English for that one either.

Passer un Mauvais Quart d’Heure (To have a bad quarter of an hour – as in 15 minutes)

This means to have a very bad moment, either with physical or emotional pain. If you hear someone say “j’ai passé un mauvaus quar d’heure”  It means that they were under extreme pressure for a little while. It’s a very common expression. No equivalent I can’t think of in English.

Honni Soit qui Mal y Pense (Shame to thee with bad thinking)

This is a very old expression using the word honni, which is really used only in this single expression in today’s French. This used to be another favorite of my mother. I grew up with this expression. It means, bad are thee who sees bad motives from those who have no bad intentions. Old French expression still very much alive.

 A Gogo (a lot)

The real word for gogo is beaucoup in French which mean a lot.  Gogo is a slang word. You may hear people say y’en a gogo  which really translates “il y en a beaucoup” which means there’s plenty.  Totally ever so popular slang expression in the French language. Again can’t find an equivalent in English.

Amuse-Gueules

This one is simply impossible to translate. Amuse means to entertain and gueule is slang for bouche (mouth).  The real expressions for amuse-gueules  are;  hors d’œuvres or canapéswhich are some type of appetizers. It entertains the mouth, thus the French created an expression amuse-gueule. Note : Gueule means both face and mouth, depending on the context.

Après moi le déluge (after me downpoor)

This expression means “I don’t care whatever happens once I’m gone.”  This expression goes back to King Louis XV who was reported to have said that one when he meant that he didn’t care what his heir would do after his death. Nowadays, this expression is often used in a joking or sarcastic way. I don’t think that this one has it’s English equivalent at all.

Je Vais te Casser la Geule (I’m going to brake you face)

Je vais the casse la gueule is slang for I’m going to fight you/hit you.  This is a very common expression that you’d hear often in movies. It’s a very common French expression. I can’t think of any in English beside, I’m going to hit you. If you know of one, please, include it in your comment down below. I hope you enjoyed those crazy French expression and I hope they made you laugh or at least, smile. Over to you now!    photo Signature_zpsf484c136.png Banner photo 468x60_zps9de5648e.jpg

18 Comments

  • Lyn says:

    Dear “life coach”
    I suggest before you write an article bout idiomatic expressions you get yourself a dictionary and so SOME research.
    It is not true that slang appeared after WWi, I have a dictionary of French slang from 1900, which has many terms and expressions in it that you haven’t covered here.
    There are hundreds of idiomatic expressions in English, and many that are equivalent to these here. .We say “has the cat got your tongue?” when someone doesn’t answer a question as required -it used to be an old fashioned teachers favourite.
    I’m gong to smash your face in? would be the equivalent of what you have put for I’m going to brake – break your face
    Goodluck wirh the dictionary

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Lyn,

      I almost thought your comment was not legit because I didn’t see a picture, but reading it I can tell you read the post, so I did published your comment. Did you found me through my coaching blog? Since you’re calling me “life coach.” Well, my name is Sylviane 🙂

      OK, now, you may have a dictionary dating from 1990 with slang words, I don’t doubt that, but I know for a FACT that very little slang was used back then in comparison to now. Please, watch some French movies from before WWII and keep going to the 50’s 60’s 70’s and so on and you WILL see how slang evolved and increased. THAT IS THE TRUTH. Movies reflect the days in which they were made very well. Old movies that are stories of the days in which they were made have very little slang. Slang started to appear more and more in movies after WWII. Should I also add that I was a Drama student in France?

      Yes, of course, English has slang, but again as I said, not as much as French does. I speak and hear English everyday and French is my native tongue. I know that for a living fact 🙂 Again, watch a modern style French movie and watch a modern style English movie and tell me where you’re going to hear more slang?

      That’s right, thanks for the “I’m gonna smash your face” that is the equivalent of “Je vais te casser la gueule.” Couldn’t think of it, that’s why I mentioned in the post to say so to anyone who did. Thanks.

      Thank yo for coming and for your input.
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    • Annie AndreTwitter: annieandrehacks says:

      Has the cat got your tongue is no the equivalent to Donner sa Langue au Chat (to give one’s tongue to the cat)

      This is a common mistake for people to make so its totally understandable that you would make this error.
      Annie Andre invites you to read..15 Funny French Expressions Involving Farm Animals And Bugs That Don’t Make Sense To English Speakers But Will Make You Sound Like A Native!My Profile

  • donna merrillTwitter: donna_tribe says:

    Sylviane,

    You have me laughing so much with this post! My favorite one is “I’m going to break your face” I heard that one too as I was growing up with an Italian family. My grandmother used to say “I’ma gonna breaka your face aaaa” It actually meant the same thing.

    Thanks for the chuckles!

    -Donna
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  • Patricia Aimard says:

    Hi! I like this blog it’s funny.
    But I would like to add something on the expression “avoir la gueule de bois” it doesn’t really mean to be drunk it means hangover! we usually say that le day after being drunk…
    Patricia

  • Christian Marjollet says:

    Chat Echaudé Craint l’Eau Froide = there is an equivalent in Eng. >>> Once bitten, twice shy.
    Also in FR no capital letters
    Honni soit qui mal y pense: Let’s not forget it’s the motto on the royal coat of arms of the UK. Je ne mets pas cette expression sur le même plan que par ex. “je vais te casser la gueule”.

  • CarartaTwitter: ArtaGene says:

    Hi Sylviane,
    Best I can come up with is:
    Once burned, twice shy, or even once bitten, twice shy!
    “The meaning of the saying is One who had an unpleasant experience is especially cautious.” (from wikipedia).
    Guess is is very close to your wet cat!
    Chat Echaudé Craint l’Eau Froide (Warmed up cat doesn’t like cold water)
    Can remember my Grandmother using part of it…she would just say the “Once bitten… and never finish!
    Hope this one helps.
    C.
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  • wendyrg says:

    Sylviane,

    You’ve listed some great expressions, but I cannot agree that French has so many more than English. No matter how well one speaks a second language ( et je vous jure que mon français est excellent — je travaille la plupart du temps en français ) there is always more to learn. I could no doubt provide a boatload of English expressions if I took the time to think about it.

    A few other comments: la gueule de bois is a hangover, the terrible way you feel once you’re sober again after a bender. It does not mean to be drunk.

    “Chat échaudé…” is “once bitten, twice shy” in English.

    “Avoir une peur bleue”: what comes to mind, though it’s not very polite, is “scared shitless”. You can also say “scared to death”, “scared stiff” and I’m sure there are many other ways to say it.

    “Donner sa langue au chat”: I have seen “cat got your tongue?” but it’s usually with a question mark and I believe is closer to “nothing to say?”. I would suggest “you’ve got me there” for “donner sa langue…”.

    There a many marvelous expressions in French, but there are also many extraordinary expressions in every other language. Let’s avoid–dare I say?–linguistic chauvinism!

  • P Boutier says:

    I would have to say that your comments about French slang starting only around the time of WW2 has to be inaccurate. Because your family and friends might not have used slang nor the movies is not enough historical evidence.
    For one thing historically the French always had a thing for proper French which was bred into people. That same penchant, even from the government I would guess affected what was in movies mostly before WW2.
    In one simple case that I can quote one slang word used to defaming Germans was Boche. ( I may have misspelled it.)
    In a similar vein, I has never heard swear words in French other than merde, growing up I thought all swear words used in French were English- American words. Wasn’t till I was much older that I started hearing French swear words.

    I would also add that your “translation” of the ‘ oh la vache’ in my experience isn’t holy ice, as every time I ever heard it it was in reference to someone who had either said something or done something and was really a comment on how they were distasteful. Though sometimes it was also used sarcastically. I never heard it as in Holly Cow. At least my experience.

    One expression I have heard often and have found many who have heard it too is roughly, ” tu parle comme in vache Espaniol”, ( again pardon my spelling), it was always used as if one who had spoke either hadn’t used French correctly, or who had mispronounced words, or who didn’t know what they were talking about from the viewpoint of the person using this expression.
    Saying to someone the literal translation of you “speak English like a Spaniard” would not make much sense, perhaps some other vulgar American expressions might work, as I’m told this French version is often considered vulgar too.

  • François says:

    Hi,

    “Traîne savattes”, to caracterize someone who is very slow, literally it means “Slippers puller” as someone who rather shuffle than walk.
    “En avoir gros sur la patate”, to have a lot on the potato.. meaning to have a lot of things to worry about…

  • Mathilde Chery says:

    Hi Sylviane,
    I had the “gueule de bois” before and it doesn’t mean that I was drunk. It means that I had a “hang over”…
    And for the “Je vais te casser la gueule” I would say “I’m gonna bit you up!”.
    There are so many expressions that lose their sense in translation, and not only in french, but also english slang. That’s why I hate doing translations…
    Anyway, thanks for this article!!
    Thanks for this article

  • Lyn says:

    Hello Sylviane
    Could it not simply be that you see more slang in movies now than before because censorship has changed, Yes movies reflect their period, and the morals and limitations of the time. Not sure where you’re hearing your English, how much slang you hear often depends on what type of people you hang around with, how well you know them and how much slang they are permitted to use in their role. If you’re with academic types or people who take pride in their good (maybe not native) English you aint gonna hear ****loads of slang
    Regards

  • Torsten says:

    Great post! Some of these are quite bizarre. I have yet to hear any of them spoken in France itself, so on my next visit I may have to prompt someone somehow 😉

    I think my favorite is ‘Oh la vache’!!

  • Annie AndreTwitter: annieandrehacks says:

    i just love using idomatic expressions Sylviane. it is so much more colourful and meaningful to use them if you can.
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  • Michael says:

    As an Australian we too have a lot of slang terms that no one outside Australia can comprehend. Cark it, drongo and face like a dropped pie are just a few.

    I think it’s great as it adds colour to a visit to any country.

    • Sylviane Nuccio says:

      Hi Micheal, and welcome to my blog.

      Indeed, language expressions that are particular to a country, even when the language is spoken elsewhere makes the language so much more interesting.

      French use a record number of expressions and slang that come up in the language on a constant basis. Good luck to those who learn French in school and with books, they will be lost once they try to walk around the country. I tell you that!

      I see, Australians have their own too. I know none of the ones you’re mentioning here.

      Thank you for coming and for your comment. Will check you out too.

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