In your own language, did you ever wonder when and how an idiomatic expression was born? How come in English, people ended up saying “it’s raining cats and dogs”? Idiomatic expressions are everywhere, in every language. Of course, French has its own, and even for native speakers there are more expressions than we can imagine. Expressions make the language richer and, in my experience, they can be a lot of fun for learners. So, if you travel to France, if you have contact with French people wherever you are, well you might hear some strange sayings. Below is a list of 10 common French expressions you may hear along the way:
- C’est nickel !
No, we are not talking about the 5 cent coin in the US. This expression was born in the 20th century and comes from the fact that faucets are built with nickel. Actually there are three layers: brass, nickel and chrome. You cannot see the nickel but nickel is a metal which, when it’s very well polished, is bright and seems clean. Also, to accentuate the meaning, some people feel the need to add chrome, like in: “C’est nickel chrome”.
When do you use it?: There are two possible situations
- If you clean your bedroom or your apartment very well, a guest could say “Oh ! C’est nickel chez toi” (“Wow, it’s super clean here !”).
- If you make an agreement with someone: “– Rendez-vous demain à 14h. – Oui c’est nickel!” (“Meeting at 2 tomorrow.” “Yes perfect !”)
Translations: “C’est impeccable”, “C’est parfait !”.
In Quebec, and if you talk about something really clean, you could say “C’est propre comme un sou neuf” (“It’s clean like a new penny/cent”)
- Courir sur le haricot (Taper sur le système)
Literally, run on the bean… Well, obviously it’s not really possible… and it has nothing to do with Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. The origin of this expression is not very precise, and there is quite a mystery behind it. It was preceded by another expression that means the same thing “Taper sur le système”, système referring to the nervous system.
When do you use it?: Because of the old sayings like “haricoter”, “courir quelqu’un” and “taper” which meant “importuner” (to bother) in 19th century, you use it when someone or something is bothering you.
If someone tells you: “Tu me cours sur le haricot”, well… you obviously bother someone!
If it has been raining for days, and you can’t take it anymore, and it really gets on your nerves, you can also say: “Ce temps commence à me taper sur le système”.
Translations: “Embêter”, “importuner”, “énerver” (to tick off, to get on somebody’s nerve). In Switzerland, they would prefer “courir sur le fil” (run on the thread).
- Aller à Tataouine
This expression comes from a historic event. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the deserters of the Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa were sent to the prison of Tataouine, in Algeria. Today, you can either use “Tataouine” or “Tataouine-les-bains”. Many towns beside water in France are composed of “les-bains”.
When do you use it?: It carries a connotation of a place very far away, but also hell. You can use this expression when you have to go somewhere but don’t really want to. “– Où allez-vous? – Encore à Tataouine.”
Translations: « aller très loin » (to go far away)
In Quebec, you will hear “A Petawawa”, “aller à St-Ouinouin”, while in Belgium, they go to “Outsiplou” or “Outsiplou-les-bains-de pieds”.
- Tenir au courant (Tenir au jus)
It has nothing to do with fruit juice or water currents. “Courant” has different meanings, but here it is “something common”, for example “C’est courant” (it’s common). “Jus” is a play on words, because “courant” also means “electric current”, and its slang is “jus”.
When do you use it?: If someone invites you for to event, but you don’t know if you will be able to make it, you will answer: “Je te tiens au courant” or “Je te tiens au jus!”
Translations: “Tenir informé(e)” (keep someone informed/posted).
- Ne pas faire avancer le schmilblick
The what? Oui, “schmilblick” (pronounced /shmil-blik/). This expression is quite recent and was invented by French humorist Pierre Dac in the 50s. He described it as an absolutely useless imaginary object. It resurfaced in 1969 and was the name of a television game, and later, Coluche used it in one of his sketches where he parodied the television game.
When do you use it?: This expression is mostly used in the negative form, as in: “ne pas faire avancer le schmilblick”. If you and a friend try to find a solution to a problem, but your friend only suggests useless information, you can say “Ca ne fait pas avancer le schmilblick.”.
Translations: “Ca ne nous aide pas”, “ça ne nous apporte rien” (it doesn’t help).
- Un chouïa
This expression was born in the 20th century and comes from the Arabic language “chouya”. In written form, you can see: “chouïa”, “chouilla” or “chouya”. It means “un peu” (a little).
When do you use it?: It can be used in many situations. For exemple:
1. If someone asks you if you are tired, you can answer : “oui, un chouïa”.
2. If someone offers you a piece of cake, or a beverage, you can say : “merci mais un chouïa”.
Translations: “un peu”, in English you can translate it by “a tad”.
- Être à la bourre
“Bourre” has many meanings that we won’t be able to completely cover here. In this case, it comes from “bloquer” (to block), “arrêter” (to stop). Of course, if you are blocked or stopped, you become late or feel hurried.
When do you use it?: It’s only used when someone is late or in a rush. So if your best friend is running late to catch his train, you can easily say : “Il est à la bourre.”
Translations: “être en retard” (to be late).
- Avoir le cafard
“Cafard”… cockroach… So you have the cockroach, huh? Well, no… but this insect does like dark places right? In fact, “avoir le cafard” means to have dark thoughts, to be depressed. It was first used by Baudelaire in “Les Fleurs du Mal”.
When do you use it?: If you are away from home, you may have “le cafard” because you miss your family and friends. So when you’re feeling blue (in English), you can say “j’ai le cafard en ce moment.”
Translations: “avoir les idées noires” (to have dark (black) thoughts), “être déprimé(e)” (to be depressed).
- Avoir la frite / la patate / la pêche / la banane
Ahh, the French people, they love food! This saying is all about being in great shape and being smiley. The first expression with this meaning to be introduced was “avoir la patate”. Patate meant “head” at the beginning of the 20th Century. Later, in the 70s, “frite” appeared. La “banane” is referring to the mouth and the corners going up for a smile.
When do you use it?: If one of your relatives is full of energy, you may describe them by saying : “Elle a la patate”.
Translations: “être en grande forme”, “avoir le sourire”. In Quebec, they are on fire “pêter le feu”.
- Un froid de canard
This expression comes from duck hunts, which usually occur near water during fall and winter. Today, it’s a daily expression during the colder seasons.
When do you use it?: Imagine you are in the north of France or the Alps in wintertime… obviously it is very cold. To sound more fluent in French, just say, “Oh quel froid de canard!”
Translations: “un très grand froid” (freezing cold). In Quebec, you will hear “il fait frette”, “c’est fret comme chez le loup” (it’s cold like at the wolf’s).