French Language Blog

When Pigs Fly And Chicken Have Teeth – Impossible French Expressions Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Culture, Vocabulary

When facing the impossible it can be useful to have something fun to say to help make a joke of the situation. Whether it’s au second degré (sarcastic) or an honestly difficult task doesn’t matter as much as far as the language is concerned.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under CC0.

Growing up I often heard a fun expression to diffuse anything that was completely out of the question:

When pigs fly

It’s a fun way to deny something and it’s so visual I internalized it as a saying that everyone could understand. As often happens when entering another culture and language, that ended up in a very funny situation down the line with mes amis français (my French friends):

Tu sais, je vais être un milliardaire un jour.
Ah oui ?
C’est vrai !
Oui, quand les cochons voleront.
Quand les cochons voleront ? T’es fou ?
Tu as pas cette expression en français ?
Apparemment ! Qu’est-ce que tu veux dire ?
C’est une expression qui veut dire une chose qui n’arrivera jamais.
Aaah, tu veux dire “quand les poules auront des dents” ?
Peut-être ? Ça veut dire que tu ne seras jamais un milliardaire ?
Oui ! Hahaha !

You know, I’m going to be a billionaire one day.
Ah really?
It’s true!
Yeah, when pigs fly.
When pigs fly? Are you crazy?
You don’t have that expression in French?
Apparently! What do you want to say?
It’s an expression that means something that will never happen.
Aaah, you mean “when chickens have teeth”?
Maybe? That means you will never be a billionaire?
Yes! Hahaha!

It was a fun lesson, but it makes perfect sense when thinking about the similar idea of something crazy and impossible. To add to la faute (the mistake), I actually grew up on a farm and ma soeur (my sister) would shout something very similar when playing with les poules:

Chickens don’t have lips!
Les poules n’ont pas de levres !

It never had the same meaning as When pigs fly for me or ma famille (my family), but it firmly planted the idea of the absurdity that is at the heart of l’expression. Both l’expression française et anglaise (the French and English expression) work because they are referencing a situation that can never be true!

Interestingly, in the 19th century there was a similar expression française that seems to have been lost to time, most likely due to its more crude reference:

Quand les poules pisseront
When chickens piss

A more recent example of the modern expression française comes from the famous author, Raymond Queneau He used the expression and seemingly made it more popular for modern France with a pretty well know excerpt from son roman (his novel), Le Dimanche de la vie (the Sunday of the life):

Quand te marieras-tu, toi ?
Quand les poules auront des dents.
Y en a qui en ont.

When are you getting married?
When pigs fly (literally: when chicken have teeth).
Some have them.

The last part is an added bit more absurdity to l’expression. It really has been proven that des poules ont des dents (some chickens have teeth).

Personally, I find it as a fun connection to another French saying, impossible n’est pas français (impossible isn’t French)!

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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.