French Language Blog

5 French Idioms You Should Know Posted by on Jan 16, 2017 in Culture, Vocabulary

Idioms (les idiotismes, m.) are expressions that don’t necessarily make sense literally, but have a well known meaning to native speakers. In order to be able to understand a language’s idioms, therefore, you can’t just know the exact definition of a word but you must also understand the social and cultural meaning behind that word. It is also nearly impossible to perfectly translate.

Here are some common idiotismes that you may come across in French:

Appeler un chat un chat

Literal meaning: “To call a cat a cat”

Actual meaning: In English, we would use another idiomatic expression “calling a spade a spade.” This means that you call something out for what you see it as.

Example: “Je l’ai vu! Il faut appeler un chat un chat.” (I saw it! I’m just telling it as it is.)


Avoir la gueule de bois

Literal meaning: “To have a mouth of wood”

Actual meaning: This just means to have a hangover.

Example: Je suis sortie hier soir et je me suis levée ce matin avec une gueule de bois grave. (I went out last night and I woke up this morning with a serious hangover.)


Être à l’ouest

Literal meaning: “To be in the west”

Actual meaning: To be out of it or to be crazy/out of touch with reality.

Example: Il est complètement à l’ouest, ce mec! (This guy is totally out of it!)


Avoir un poil dans la main

Literal meaning: “To have a hair in the hand”

Actual meaning: To be very lazy, in fact so lazy that they watched a hair grow in the palm of their hand!

Example: Il dort tous les jours jusqu’à midi. Il a vraiment un poil dans la main. (He sleeps every day until noon. He’s really lazy!)


Donner un coup de main

Literal meaning: “To give a a hit of the hand”

Actual meaning: To give a helping hand. This idiom can be especially confusing because, to someone who is not native, it can sound almost threatening, although all it means is to help someone out!

Example: Elle est tellement gentille. Elle me donne toujours un coup de main sans que je demande. (She is so nice. She always helps me out even without asking.)




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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!


  1. Raúl:

    Thank you very much, Elizabeth! I love all of them, especially the “Avoir la gueule de bois”, amusing!!! 🙂
    May I ask you about the equivalent in French to “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”?

    • Gwen:

      @Raúl Hey!

      To answer you for “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”

      We would say ” Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras.”

    • Eléa:

      @Raúl Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras.

  2. Terri:

    Plus comme celui-ci! Les idiomes sont difficile à apprendre sans être dans la France.