Common French Proverbs and Sayings

French Sayings to Keep up Your Language Skills

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A proverb is a phrase or saying that states a general truth based on common sense, often used to make a suggestion or to offer a piece of advice. In English, proverbs make their way into conversation masked as conventional wisdom when people say that "two wrongs don't make a right," or that great "great minds think alike."

Every language has its own idioms, proverbs, riddles, and sayings. In French, much like in English, proverbs are used liberally in conversations. Here is a list of some French proverbs to help you brush up on your language skills. The French proverb is listed on the left followed by its English equivalent. The literal English translation of each proverb is in quotation marks and enclosed in parentheses. The lists of proverbs are grouped according to the first letter of the sayings for ease of reading.

General French Proverbs: 'A' to 'E'

À cœur vaillant rien d'impossible. —> Nothing is impossible for a willing heart.
("To a valiant heart nothing impossible.")

À l'impossible nul n'est tenu. —> No one is bound to do the impossible. ("To the impossible, no one is bound")

À quelque chose malheur est bon. —> Every cloud has a silver lining. ("Unhappiness is good for something.")

Après la pluie le beau temps. —> Every cloud has a silver lining. ("After the rain, the nice weather.")

L'arbre cache souvent la forêt. —> Can't see the forest for the trees. ("The tree often hides the forest.")

Aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait. —> No sooner said than done. ("Immediately said, immediately done.")

Autres temps, autres mœurs. —> Times change. ("Other times, other customs.")

Aux grands maux les grands remèdes. —> Desperate times call for desperate measures. ("To the great evils great remedies.")

Avec des si (et des mais), on mettrait Paris en bouteille. —> If if's and and's were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers' hands. ("With ifs (and buts), one would put Paris in a bottle.")

Battre le fer pendant qu'il est chaud. —> To strike while the iron is hot. ("To hit the iron while it's hot.")

Bien mal acquis ne profite jamais. —> Ill gotten, ill spent. ("Goods poorly gotten never profit.")

Bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée. —> A good name is better than riches. ("Well named is more is worth more than a golden belt.")

Bon sang ne saurait mentir. —> What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. ("Good blood doesn't know how to lie.")

Ce sont les tonneaux vides qui font le plus de bruit. —> Empty vessels make the most noise. ("It's the empty barrels that make the most noise.")

Chacun voit midi à sa porte. —> To each his own. ("Everyone sees noon at his door.")

Un clou chasse l'autre. —> Life goes on. ("One nail chases the other.")

En avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil. —> Warm weather in April isn't to be trusted. ("In April, don't remove a thread (of your clothing).")

En tout pays, il y a une lieue de mauvais chemin. —> There will be bumps in the smoothest roads. ("In every country, there is a league of bad road.")

Entre l'arbre et l'écorce il ne faut pas mettre le doigt. —> Caught between a rock and a hard place. ("Between the tree and the bark one shouldn't put a finger.")

General Proverbs: 'H' to 'I'

Heureux au jeu, malheureux en amour. —> Lucky at cards, unlucky in love. ("Happy in the game, unhappy in love.")

Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps. —> One swallow doesn't make a summer. ("One swallow doesn't make spring.")

Il faut casser le noyau pour avoir l'amande. —> No pain no gain. ("You need to break the shell to have the almond.")

Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée. —> There can be no middle course. ("A door must be open or closed.")

Il faut réfléchir avant d'agir. —> Look before you leap. ("You have to think before acting.")

Il ne faut jamais dire « Fontaine, je ne boirai pas de ton eau ! » —> Never say never. ("You should never say, 'Fountain, I will never drink your water!")

Il ne faut jamais jeter le manche après la cognée. —> Never say die. ("One should never throw the handle after the felling axe.")

Il ne faut rien laisser au hasard. —> Leave nothing to chance. ("Nothing should be left to chance.")

Il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu. —> Where there's smoke, there's fire. ("There's no smoke without fire.")

Il n'y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent jamais. —> There are none so distant that fate cannot bring together. ("There are only mountains that never meet.")

Il vaut mieux être marteau qu'enclume. —> It's better to be a hammer than a nail. ("It's better to be a hammer than an anvil.")

Impossible n'est pas français. —> There is no such word as "can't." ("Impossible isn't French.")

General Proverbs: 'L' to 'Q'

Les jours se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas. —> There's no telling what tomorrow will bring. ("The days follow each other and don't look alike.")

Un malheur ne vient jamais seul. —> When it rains, it pours! ("Misfortune never comes alone.")

Le mieux est l'ennemi de bien. —> Let well enough alone. ("Best is good's enemy.")

Mieux vaut plier que rompre. —> Adapt and survive. ("Better to bend than to break.")

Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir. —> Prevention is better than cure. ("Better to prevent than to cure.")

Mieux vaut tard que jamais. —> Better late than never. ("Late is worth more than never.")

Les murs ont des oreilles. —> Walls have ears.

Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison. —> A warm Christmas means a cold Easter. ("Christmas on the balcony, Easter at the embers.")

On ne fait pas d'omelette sans casser des œufs. —> You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre. —> You can't have your cake and eat it too. ("You can't have the butter and the money from [selling] the butter.")

Paris ne s'est pas fait en un jour. —> Rome wasn't built in a day. ("Paris wasn't made in a day.")

Les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières. —> Tall oaks from little acorns grow. ("The little streams make the big rivers.")

Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire. —> Once the first step is taken there's no going back. ("When the wine is drawn, one must drink it.")

La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure. —> Might makes right. ("The strongest reason is always the best.")

General Proverbs: 'R' to 'V'

Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point. —> Slow and steady wins the race. ("There's no point in running, you have to leave on time.")

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. —> Youth is wasted on the young.
("If youth knew, if old age could.")

Un sou est un sou. —> Every penny counts. ("A cent is a cent.")

Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse. —> Enough is enough. ("So often the pitcher goes to the water that in the end it breaks.")

Tel est pris qui croyait prendre. —> It's the biter bit. ("He is taken who thought he could take.")

Tel qui rit vendredi dimanche pleurera. —> Laugh on Friday, cry on Sunday. ("He who laughs on Friday will cry on Sunday.")

Le temps, c'est de l'argent. —> Time is money. ("Time, that's money.")

Tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche. —> to think long and hard before speaking. ("To turn one's tongue in one's mouth seven times.")

Tous les goûts sont dans la nature. —> It takes all kinds (to make a world). ("All tastes are in nature.")

Tout ce qui brille n'est pas or. —> All that glitters isn't gold.

Tout est bien qui finit bien. —> All's well that ends well.

Toute peine mérite salaire. —> The laborer is worthy of his hire. ("All trouble taken deserves pay.")

Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l'auras. —> A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. ("One that you hold is better than two that you will have.")

Vouloir, c'est pouvoir. —> Where there's a will, there's a way. ("To want, that is to be able.")

People-Oriented Proverbs: 'A' to 'D'

À bon entendeur, salut. —> A word to the wise is enough. ("To a good listener, safety.")

À mauvais ouvrier point de bons outils. —> A bad workman blames his tools. ("To a bad worker no good tools.")

À l'œuvre on reconnaît l'artisan. —> You can tell an artist by his handiwork. ("By his work one recognizes the workman.")

À père avare fils prodigue. —> The miser's son is a spendthrift. ("To a stingy father prodigal son.")

À tout seigneur tout honneur. —> Honor to whom honor is due.

Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera. —> Heaven helps those who help themselves. ("Help yourself, heaven will help you.")

Au royaume des aveugles les borgnes sont rois. —> In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Autant de têtes, autant d'avis. —> Too many cooks spoil the broth. ("So many heads, so many opinions.")

Aux innocents les mains pleines. —> Beginner's luck. ("Full hands for the innocents.")

Bien faire et laisser dire. —> Do your work well and never mind the critics. ("Do well and let (them) speak.")

C'est au pied du mur qu'on voit le maçon. —> The tree is known by its fruit. ("It's at the foot of the wall that you see the mason.")

C'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron. —> Practice makes perfect. ("It's by forging that one becomes a blacksmith.")

Charbonnier est maître chez lui. —> A man's home is his castle. ("A coalman is master at home.")

Comme on connaît ses saints, on les honore. —> To know a friend is to respect him. ("As one knows his saints, one honors them.")

Comme on fait son lit, on se couche. —> You've made your bed, now you must lie on it.

Les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs. —> Givers of advice don't pay the price. ("Dispensers of advice are not the payers.")

Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés. —> The shoemaker's son always goes barefoot. ("Shoemakers are always the worst shod.")

Deux patrons font chavirer la barque. —> Too many cooks spoil the broth. ("Two bosses capsize the boat.")

People-Oriented Proverbs: 'L' to 'N'

L'erreur est humaine. —> To err is human. ("The error is human.")

L'exactitude est la politesse des rois. —> Punctuality is the politeness of kings.

L'habit ne fait pas le moine. —> Clothes don't make the person. ("The habit doesn't make the monk.")

Il ne faut pas juger les gens sur la mine. —> Don't judge a book by its cover. ("One shouldn't judge people on their appearance.")

Il ne sert à rien de déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul. —> Robbing Peter to pay Paul. ("It serves no purpose to undress Peter to dress Paul.")

Il n'est si méchant pot qui ne trouve son couvercle. —> Every Jack has his Jill. ("There's no jar so mean that it can't find its lid.")

Il vaut mieux aller au moulin qu'au médecin. —> An apple a day keeps the doctor away. ("It's better to go to the mill than to the doctor.")

Nécessité fait loi. —> Beggars can't be choosers. ("Necessity makes law.")

Nul n'est prophète en son pays. —> No man is a prophet in his own country.

L'occasion fait le larron. —> Opportunity makes a thief.

On ne peut pas être à la fois au four et au moulin. —> You can't be in two places at once. ("One can't be at the oven and the mill at the same time.")

On ne prête qu'aux riches. —> Only the rich get richer. ("One only lends to the rich.")

Quand le diable devient vieux, il se fait ermite. —> New converts are the most pious. ("When the devil gets old, he turns into a hermit.")

People-Oriented Proverbs: 'Q'

Quand on veut, on peut. —> Where there's a will, there's a way. ("When one wants, one can.")

Qui aime bien châtie bien. —> Spare the rod and spoil the child. ("He who loves well punishes well.")

Qui casse les verres les paie. —> You pay for your mistakes. ("He who breaks the glasses pays for them.")

Qui craint le danger ne doit pas aller en mer. —> If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. ("He who fears dangers shouldn't go to sea.")

Qui donne aux pauvres prête à Dieu. —> Charity will be rewarded in heaven. ("He who gives to the poor loans to God.")

Qui dort dîne. —> He who sleeps forgets his hunger. ("He who sleeps eats.")

Qui m'aime me suive. —> Come all ye faithful. ("He who loves me, follow me.")

Qui n'entend qu'une cloche n'entend qu'un son. —> Hear the other side and believe little. ("He who hears only one bell hears only one sound.")

Qui ne dit mot consent. —> Silence implies consent. ("He who says nothing consents.")

Qui ne risque rien n'a rien. —> Nothing ventured, nothing gained. ("He who risks nothing has nothing.")

Qui paie ses dettes s'enrichit. —> The rich man is the one who pays his debts. ("He who pays his debts gets richer.")

Qui peut le plus peut le moins. —> He who can do more can do less.

Qui s'excuse, s'accuse. —> A guilty conscience needs no accuser. ("He who excuses himself accuses himself.")

Qui se marie à la hâte se repent à loisir. —> Marry in haste, repent later. ("He who marries in haste repents in leisure.")

Qui se sent morveux, qu'il se mouche. —> If the shoe fits, wear it. ("He who feels stuffy should blow his nose.")

Qui sème le vent récolte la tempête. —> As you sow, so shall you reap. ("He who sows the wind reaps the storm.")

Qui s'y frotte s'y pique. —> Watch out - you might get burned. ("He who rubs against it gets stung.")

Qui terre a, guerre a. —> He who has land has quarrels. ("Who has land, has war.")

Qui trop embrasse mal étreint. —> He who grasps at too much loses everything. ("He who hugs too much holds badly.")

Qui va à la chasse perd sa place. —> He who leaves his place loses it. / Step out of line and you'll lose your place. ("He who goes hunting loses his place.")

Qui va lentement va sûrement. —> Slowly but surely. ("He who goes slowly goes surely.")

Qui veut la fin veut les moyens. —> The end justifies the means. ("He who wants the end wants the means.")

Qui veut voyager loin ménage sa monture. —> He who takes it slow and steady travels a long way. ("He who wants to travel far spares his mount.")

Qui vivra verra. —> What will be will be/Time will tell/God only knows. ("He who lives will see.")

People-Oriented Proverbs: 'R' to 'V'

Rira bien qui rira le dernier. —> Whoever laughs last laughs best. ("Will laugh well he who laughs last.")

Tel père, tel fils. —> Like father like son.

Tout soldat a dans son sac son batôn de maréchal. —> The sky is the limit. ("Every soldier has his marshall's baton in his bag.")

Tout vient à point à qui sait attendre. —> All things come to those who wait. ("All comes on time to the one who knows how to wait.")

La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants. —> Out of the mouths of babes. ("The truth comes out of the mouths of children.")

Sayings With Animal Analogies: 'A' to 'G'

À bon chat bon rat. —> Tit for tat. ("To good cat good rat.")

Bon chien chasse de race. —> Like breeds like. ("Good dog hunts [thanks to] its ancestry.")

La caque sent toujours le hareng. —> What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. ("The herring barrel always smells like herring.")

Ce n'est pas à un vieux singe qu'on apprend à faire la grimace. —> There's no substitute for experience. ("It's not an old monkey that one teaches to make faces.")

Ce n'est pas la vache qui crie le plus fort qui fait le plus de lait. —> Talkers are not doers.
("It's not the cow that moos the loudest who gives the most milk.")

C'est la poule qui chante qui a fait l'œuf. —> The guilty dog barks the loudest. ("It's the chicken that sings who laid the egg.")

Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide. —> Once bitten, twice shy. ("Scalded cat fears cold water.")

Le chat parti, les souris dansent. —> When the cat's away, the mice will play. ("The cat gone, the mice dance.")

Chien qui aboie ne mord pas. —> A barking dog does not bite.

Un chien regarde bien un évêque. —> A cat may look at a king. ("A dog looks well at a bishop.")

Un chien vivant vaut mieux qu'un lion mort. —> A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. ("A live dog is worth more than a dead lion.")

Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe. —> To each his own. ("The dogs bark, the caravan goes by.")

Les chiens ne font pas des chats. —> The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. ("Dogs don't make cats.")

Donne au chien l'os pour qu'il ne convoite pas ta viande. —> Give some and keep the rest. ("Give the dog the bone so that he doesn't go after your meat.")

Faire d'une pierre deux coups. —> To kill two birds with one stone. ("To strike twice with one stone.")

Faute de grives, on mange des merles. —> Beggars can't be choosers. ("Lack of thrushes, one eats blackbirds.")

Les gros poissons mangent les petits. —> Big fish eat little fish.

Animal Analogies: 'I' to 'P'

Il faut savoir donner un œuf pour avoir un bœuf. —> Give a little to get a lot. ("You have to know how to give an egg to get an ox.")

Il ne faut jamais courir deux lièvres à la fois. —> Don't try to do two things at once. ("One should never run after two hares at the same time.")

Il ne faut jamais mettre la charrue avant les bœufs. —> Don't put the cart before the horse. ("One should never put the plow before the oxen.")

Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué. —> Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. ("You shouldn't sell the bearskin before killing the bear.")

Il vaut mieux s'adresser à Dieu qu'à ses saints. —> It's better to talk to the organ-grinder than the monkey. ("It's better to address God than his saints.")

Il y a plus d'un âne à la foire qui s'appelle Martin. —> Don't jump to conclusions. ("There's more than one donkey named Martin at the fair.")

Le loup retourne toujours au bois. —> One always goes back to one's roots. ("The wolf always goes back to the woods.")

Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort. —> Let sleeping dogs lie. ("Don't wake the sleeping cat.")

La nuit, tous les chats sont gris. —> All cats are grey in the dark. ("At night, all the cats are grey.")

On ne marie pas les poules avec les renards. —> Different strokes for different folks. ("One does not wed hens with foxes.")

Petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid. —> Every little bit helps. ("Little by little, the bird builds its nest.")

Animal Analogies: 'Q' to 'S'

Quand le chat n'est pas là, les souris dansent. —> When the cat's away, the mice will play. ("When the cat isn't there, the mice dance.")

Quand on parle du loup (on en voit la queue). —> Speak of the devil (and he appears). ("When you talk about the wolf (you see its tail).")

Qui a bu boira. —> A leopard can't change his spots. ("He who has drunk will drink.")

Qui m'aime aime mon chien. —> Love me love my dog. ("He who loves me loves my dog.")

Qui naît poule aime à caqueter. —> A leopard can't change his spots. ("He who was born a hen likes to cackle.")

Qui se couche avec les chiens se lève avec des puces. —> If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.

Qui se fait brebis le loup le mange. —> Nice guys finish last. ("He who makes himself a ewe the wolf eats.")

Qui se ressemble s'assemble. —> Birds of a feather flock together. ("Those who resemble assemble.")

Qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf. —> Give an inch and he'll take a mile. ("He who steals an egg will steal an ox.")

Souris qui n'a qu'un trou est bientôt prise. —> Better safe than sorry. ("A mouse that has only one hole is soon caught.")

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Team, ThoughtCo. "Common French Proverbs and Sayings." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Team, ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). Common French Proverbs and Sayings. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "Common French Proverbs and Sayings." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).