Untranslatable French

Baffling French idioms and expressions


Being able to recite your verb tables backwards is all very well and good, but it’s those mind-boggling idioms and expressions that are the key to speaking French like a native. Idioms are a fascinating linguistic feature that can be found in every language. They usually originate from unique historical and/or cultural practices. Unfortunately, very few idiomatic expressions can be directly translated, you simply have to knuckle down and learn them by heart. On the bright side however, most of these expressions seem so bizarre that you are unlikely to forget them in a hurry! Here is a list of Franglish's favourite French idioms:



Literal translation: To have long teeth

Actual meaning: To be very ambitious

Closest English equivalent: To be an eager beaver

Explanation and origin: Back in the C14th, this expression simply meant 'to be hungry', but over time it has aquired a different nuance. Interestingly, the Spanish equivalent is not so very different ('Comerse el mundo') and the Catalan version is identical ('Tenir les dens llargues').  



Literal translation: To have a spider on the ceiling

Actual meaning: To be/act a little mad

Closest English equivalent: To have a geranium in the cranium

Explanation and origin: This expression appeared in the mid-C19th and was originally used by Parisian prostitutes. The 'plafond' is thought to refer to the cranium, in which a spider, known to prefer the peace of hidden and often neglected spots, might spin its web. It doesn't take the greatest leap of the imagination to get from this image to abnormality and likely madness.



Literal translation: To cut the hair into quarters

Actual meaning: To be meticulous

Closest English equivalent: To split hairs

Explanation and origin: Dating back to the C17th, this is one of the few idiomatic French expressions with a similar meaning and literal translation in English. It's not exactly identical in the two languages, since the verb 'to split' implies the hair being sliced in two, whereas the French clearly specifies four.



Literal translation: It's a dog time

Actual meaning: It’s very bad weather

Closest English equivalent: It's raining cats and dogs

Explanation and orgin : « De chien » appears in a number of French idioms and expression (une humeur de chien, un mal de chien, une vie de chien) and consistently carries excessively pessimistic, negative or unappealing connotations. This meaning comes from the out-dated idea that dogs are dirty and/or naughty.



Got those mastered? For more examples and explanations have a look at www.expressio.fr


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Author: Camilla Freeman

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