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A Game Of Cat And Mouse – Dancing Mice Expression In French Posted by on Jan 9, 2019 in Vocabulary

As 2019 begins and les vacances (vacation) come to an end, there’s a special kind of lethargy au bureau (at the office), especially when les chefs (the bosses) aren’t finished with their long holidays.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under CC0.

There’s no shortage of fun expressions that throw French learners for a loop. The balance between trying to figure out why something doesn’t make sense and knowing the limits of votre vocabulaire (your vocabulary) make the whole process rather long and difficult.

All this overthinking is one of the hardest parts of language learning, but it can still sometimes be a little fun.

With the lull of the holiday and les patrons (the bosses) still being absent, office rules become more relaxed. When I mentioned this to un collègue (a coworker), they responded with this:

Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent !
When the cat isn’t there, the mice dance!

I had never heard l’expression before and was a bit confused when mon collègue said it. Even if it’s easy enough to understand as un anglophone (an English speaker), thinking about mice dancing left me somewhat lost. Seeing my confusion mon collègue explained it further:

Bah c’est une expression française ! Ça veut dire que les gens ne suivent pas les règles quand l’autorité n’est plus là !
Well It’s a French expression! It means that people don’t follow the rules when the authority is no longer there!

It all instantly made sense and we both shared a laugh over the truth behind the saying. I was curious about l’origine de l’expression (the origin of the expression) though and decided to look it up when I had the chance.

l’orgine exacte, like many old proverbs and sayings, is mostly unknown, but similar versions of l’expression can be found around Europe as early as the 13th century. It’s not exactly the same, but easy to see the same cat and mouse story:

Là où le chat n’est, souris s’y révèle.
There where the cat is not, mice reveal themselves.

Existing all over Europe so long ago also means that it’s easy to find a similar expression en anglais:

When the cats away the mice will play!

Going forward in time several centuries there is another example from an 18th century book:

Quand le chat est hors de la maison, les souris dansent sous la table.
When the cat is outside the house, the mice dance under the table

Then in the 19th Century, l’écrivain (the writer) Balzac then used a rather similar expression in his novel, Eugénie Grandet, bringing the saying much closer to our modern ears:

Quand le chat court sur les toits, les souris dansent sur les planchers.
When the cat runs on the roof, the mice dance on the floor.

So the next time you need to explain why the rules have relaxed while work is slow and the boss is out, remember to say:

Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent !
When the cat isn’t there, the mice dance!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Loraine:

    “When the cat’s away the mice will play” is the version we grew up with in Australia.

  2. Brian Haines:

    It’s great that the French mice dance rather than merely play. But it’s a pity they don’t rhyme. In a Clouseau accent, one could say “In the cat’s absence/The mice will dance”.