90+ Popular Expressions and Idioms Translated into French

Have Fun and Learn Famous Phrases in French

Sparrow in the hand
Un chien vivant vaut mieux qu'un lion mort translates to "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.". Paul Dance/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Do you know how to say "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" in French? What about "to split hairs"? Learning the French translations for popular expressions and idioms is a great way to study French and add to your vocabulary.

As you browse through this list, you will find many popular English expressions translated into French. Not all of them, however, are direct translations. Instead, they were translated in order to make sense in French, not to be a word-for-word meaning.

For instance, the phrase être aux cent coups is used to express that someone "doesn't know which way to turn" (that they're making a choice). Yet, if you place the French phrase into an online translator like Google Translate, you get the result of "to be a hundred lashes." That is far from the intended meaning, which is why computers are not your best source of translation. 

Human translators use the same logic employed by those who created these words of wisdom. You will use the same logic when translating and this is why it is important to continue studying French rather than rely on computers.

Have fun with these expressions and allow this lesson to influence your own translations. Since you're familiar with the meaning of the expressions, it should be a little easier to grasp them in French.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Sparrow in the hand
Un chien vivant vaut mieux qu'un lion mort translates to "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.". Paul Dance/The Image Bank/Getty Images

An English phrase, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" means that it is best to be happy with what you have rather than be greedy and ask for more.

In French, the phrase translates to: Un chien vivant vaut mieux qu'un lion mort.

Along that same thought, you might encounter someone who likes to dwell on things, complain, or make too much of something. In that case, you may choose to use one of these phrases:

  • chercher la petite bête - to split hairs (look for something to complain about)
  • laisser quelqu'un mijoter dans son jus - to let someone stew in his own juices
  • monter quelque chose en épingle - to blow something all out of proportion

Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Many cultures express a similar sentiment, though the phrase "caught between a rock and a hard place" is thought to originate in the United States. It speaks to the tough decisions we often have to make in life.

The French translation is: Entre l'arbre et l'écorce il ne faut pas mettre le doigt.

Decisions are difficult and sometimes you "don't know which way to turn," luckily, there are two ways to express that in French.

"To not know which way to turn":

  • ne pas savoir où donner de la tête    
  • être aux cent coups

Of course, you may make a choice that seemed like a good idea but didn't end up as well as you planned.  Someone may remind you that:

  • L'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions. - The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

However, there is always an optimistic approach and the ability "to see the light at the end of the tunnel" (voir le bout du tunnel)Or, you can try "to see life through rose-colored glasses" (voir la vie en rose).

To always have your head in the clouds.

Sometimes you meet dreamers who may seem "to always have one's head in the clouds."  This phrase dates back to the 1600s and has English roots.

In French, you might say: Avoir toujours la tête dans les nuages.

Often, those people are simply looking for direction in their life or have lofty ambitions:

  • chercher sa voie - to search for one's path in life
  • faire des châteaux en Espagne - to build castles in the air

Of course, just the opposite may be true and you might encounter someone who is simply lazy. A popular French phrase for that is "Avoir un poil dans la main." The literal translation is 'to have a hair in the hand," but it is understood as 'to be lazy."

There are other ways to say the same sentiment in a more direct manner:

  • Il ne s'est pas cassé la tête. (inf) - He didn't overtax himself (put any effort into it).
  • Il ne s'est pas cassé le cul. (slang) - He didn't bust his butt.
  • Il ne s'est pas cassé le tronc. (fam) - He didn't do much (try very hard).
  • Il ne s'est pas cassé la nénette. (fam) - He didn't do much (try very hard).

Leave the best for last.

You want to end something with a bang, right? It leaves a lasting impression and is a little reward to remember and enjoy. That is why we love the phrase "to leave the best for last."

The French would say: Laisser le meilleur pour la fin.

Or, they might use one of these phrases, which are more along the lines of "to save the best for last:"

  • garder le meilleur pour la fin
  • garder quelqu'un pour la bonne bouche

Now, you might want "to kill two birds with one stone" (faire d'une pierre deux coups) while completing a list of tasks. And when you get near the end, you can say "It's in the bag" (C'est dans la poche).

On its last legs.

If you would like to use the old adage "on its last legs," you can use the French phrase en bout de course, which can also be used to mean "ultimately."

Yet, there is more than one way to relay that someone or something is wearing out:

  • à bout de course - on its/one's last legs
  • à bout de souffle - breathless, out of breath; on its last legs

It's not always the end, though because "where there's a will, there's a way" (quand on veut, on peut).

You might also want to use these popular idioms for motivation:

  • Aux grands maux les grands remèdes. - Desperate times, desperate measures; Big problems require big solutions.
  • battre le fer pendant qu'il est chaud - to strike while the iron is hot

That costs an arm and a leg.

Money is a popular subject for words of wisdom and one of the most popular was reportedly coined in America after World War II. Times were tough and if the cost was high, someone might have said, "That costs an arm and a leg."

Translating that to French, you might say: Ça coûte les yeux de la tête. (literally, 'an arm and a head)

You might also have been forced "to pay through the nose" (acheter qqch à prix d'or) or been deceived in the value of something "to buy a pig in a poke" (acheter chat en poche). 

And yet, we all know that "time is money" and that is true in any language, including French: Le temps c'est de l'argent.

It's also best to use your money wisely and these two proverbs remind us of that:

  • Bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée. - A good name is better than riches.
  • Les bons comptes font les bons amis. - Don't let money squabbles ruin a friendship.

Like father, like son.

The popular idiom, "like father, like son" alludes to the question of how nature and nurture lead to the people we become.

In French, the translation for this phrase (also meaning "like breeds like") is: Bon chien chasse de race. 

To put it plainly, you might also say "He's a younger version of his father" (C'est son père en plus jeune).

That's not as fun and there are other French phrases you might want to choose instead:

  • Les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières. - Tall oaks from little acorns grow.
  • Les chiens ne font pas des chats. - The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
  • C'est au pied du mur qu'on voit le maçon. - The tree is known by its fruit.

When the cat's away, the mice will play.

When the person in charge leaves, everyone is free to do as they please. It happens with school children and even adults at work and that is why we say "when the cat's away, the mice will play."

If you wanted to say that phrase in French, use on of these: 

  • Le chat parti, les souris dansent.
  • Quand le chat n'est pas là les souris dansent.

It might also be that someone is playing around and said "to be up to one's old tricks again" (faire encore des siennes). They may also get into trouble and are said "to sow one's wild oats" (faire ses quatre cents coups).

Hopefully, they are not "like a bull in a china shop" (comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles). But, then again, "a rolling stone gathers no moss" (pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse). So one old-fashioned proverb may just cancel out another because it's okay to be playful. Right?

In the morning of one's life.

Age is a popular subject for idioms and proverbs and two of our favorites speak about the young and not-so-young.

  • au matin de sa vie - to be in the morning of one's life
  • au soir de sa vie - to be in the evening of his life

That's much better than saying 'young' and 'old,' now isn't it? Of course, you can have a bit of fun with:

  • avoir quarante ans bien sonnés (inf) - to be on the wrong side of 40

And yet, no matter your age, "you have all the time in the world" ( vous avez tout votre temps) which can also mean "all the time you need." That's a great way to look at life.

You might also meet or admire those special people in the world who are said "to be a man/woman of his/her time" (être de son temps).

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Optimists love the phrase "every cloud has a silver lining" and it sounds beautiful either way you choose to translate it into French: 

  • À quelque-chose malheur est bon.
  • Après la pluie le beau temps.

Sometimes things get a bit challenging and you "can't see the forest for the trees" (l'arbre cache souvent la forêt). But if you look at it another way, it's possible that "it's a blessing in disguise" (c'est un bien pour un mal). 

And many times you just have to sit back, let things go, and enjoy life:

  • Il faut laisser faire le temps. - Let things take/follow their (natural) course.
  • laisser vivre - to live for the day, to take each day as it comes

On the tip of my tongue.

When you can't quite remember something you might say that it's "on the tip of my tongue." If you're learning French, this is probably happening a lot.

To express this in French use: Avoir sur le bout de la langue.

You can always say, "Hang on, I'm thinking" (Attends, je cherche).

Hopefully, you don't fall victim to this malady, because it can be a bear to get rid of:

  • avoir un chat dans la gorge - to have a frog in one's throat 

Grinning from ear to ear.

When you are delighted about something, you may be said "to be grinning from ear to ear" because you're wearing your biggest smile.

In French, you would say: Avoir la bouche fendue jusqu'aux oreilles.

Someone may feel like this because the are said "to be free to do as one pleases" (voir le champ libre) and that is a good feeling.

Of course, one can always choose "to change for the better" (changer en mieux) if things aren't going quite right. Or, they might choose "to give the green light, or the go-ahead" (donner le feu vert à) to do something new.

That sends shivers up my spine.

Every now and then, you want to say, "That sends shivers up my spine" when something happens that frightens you or gives you the creeps.

There are two ways to say this in French:

  • Ça me donne des frissons. - That sends shivers up my spine.
  • Ça me fait froid dans le dos. - That gives me the shivers.

Then again, we all have things that annoy us and you can let someone else know with one of these phrases:

  • Ça me prend la tête ! - That drives me crazy!
  • C'est ma bête noire. - It's my pet peeve.

It's as easy as pie.

The idiom "it's as easy as pie" doesn't refer to baking a pie, but eating it. Now, that is easy!

If you'd like to say this in French, use: C'est facile comme tout (or, it's a breeze)

For a more literal translation of another idiom, try "c'est entré comme dans du beurre" (it's like a knife through butter).

Or, you can take the easy way out and simply say, "It's easy" (C'est facile). But that's no fun, so here are two more idioms:

  • C'est plus facile à dire qu'à faire. - Easier said than done.
  • Paris ne s'est pas fait en un jour. - Rome wasn't built in a day.

Lucky at cards, unlucky in love.

Luck and love, they do not always go hand-in-hand and the old phrase "lucky at cards, unlucky in love" explains that well.

If you want to say this in French: Heureux au jeu, malheureux en amour

You might, on the other hand, have "a stroke of luck" in love, in which case, you can say one of these lines:

  • coup de pot (fam)
  • coup de veine (inf)

Some people, however, prefer to "leave nothing to chance" (il ne faut rien laisser au hasard).

Beggars can't be choosers.

Dating back to the 1540s, the expression "beggars can't be choosers" is a popular line to pull on someone who doesn't like what they are given.

If you would like to relay this concept in French, you have two options:

  • Nécessité fait loi.
  • Faute de grives, on mange des merles.

Of course, you might also wish to remind them that sometimes you have to take what you can get "for lack of anything better" (une faute de mieux).

And, you have to appreciate these words of wisdom:

  • Ne mets pas tous tes oeufs dans le même panier. - Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
  • Qui trop embrasse mal étreint. - He who grasps at too much loses everything.

Clothes don't make the person.

There are those people who try very hard to impress anyone and everyone and that is when you might use the old-fashioned expression, "Clothes don't make the person."

In French, you would say: L'habit ne fait pas le moine.    

If you would like to speak in plain terms, try these sentences which both mean "he's/it's nothing special" or "nothing to get excited about."

  • Il ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard.
  • Il ne casse rien.

Speaking of outward appearances, you might like to pull out this old phrase to speak about someone who's trying to cover up who he really is:

  • Qui naît poule aime à caqueter. - A leopard can't change his spots.

Then again, they may just be following the crowd, because: 

  • Qui se ressemble s'assemble. - Birds of a feather flock together.

He always has to put his two cents in.

Conversation is fun and sometimes it can be a challenge, particularly when you're speaking to a know-it-all. You might say "He always has to put his two cents in."

Translating that into French: Il faut toujours qu'il ramène sa fraise. (familiar)

Sometimes you just can't get it (do you feel like that in French sometimes?) and you want to say, "It's all Greek to me" (J'y perds mon latin).

If you learn those two expressions, then you cannot miss these:

  • Mon petit doigt me l'a dit. - A little bird told me.
  • Ne tourne pas autour du pot ! - Don't beat around the bush!

Don't put the cart before the horse.

When someone's doing something completely backward, you might dig up the old adage, "Don't put the cart before the horse." Think about it, it makes sense!

In French, you would rattle off the sentence: Il ne faut jamais mettre la charrue avant les boeufs.

It's also important to not jump to conclusions and you might advise someone, "don't judge a book by its cover" (Il ne faut pas juger les gens sur la mine).

Old expressions love chickens and eggs. Here are two more pieces of sage wisdom:

  • Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué. - Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. 
  • On ne fait pas d'omelette sans casser des oeufs. - You can't make an omelet  without breaking eggs.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Can we have a discussion about famous expressions without including "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? No, we cannot.

If you would like to translate this into French, tackle this sentence: Il vaut mieux aller au moulin qu'au médecin.

We'll finish off with a simple list of some of our favorite old-time expressions, which will never go out of style:

  • Il vaut mieux être marteau qu'enclume. - It's better to be a hammer than a nail.
  • Il vaut mieux s'adresser à Dieu qu'à ses saints. - It's better to talk to the organ-grinder than the monkey.
  • Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera. - Heaven helps those who help themselves.
  • Au royaume des aveugles les borgnes sont rois. - In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
  • Avec des si et des mais, on mettrait Paris dans une bouteille. - If ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers' hands.
  • C'est la poule qui chante qui a fait l'oeuf. - The guilty dog barks the loudest.
  • Ce sont les tonneaux vides qui font le plus de bruit. - Empty vessels make the most noise.
  • À l'impossible nul n'est tenu. - No one is bound to do the impossible.

  • À l'oeuvre on reconnaît l'artisan. - You can tell an artist by his handiwork.
  • À mauvais ouvrier point de bons outils. - A bad workman blames his tools.
  • Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés. - The shoemaker's son always goes barefoot.
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Lawless, Laura K. "90+ Popular Expressions and Idioms Translated into French." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/popular-expressions-idioms-translated-into-french-4081772. Lawless, Laura K. (2017, April 8). 90+ Popular Expressions and Idioms Translated into French. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/popular-expressions-idioms-translated-into-french-4081772 Lawless, Laura K. "90+ Popular Expressions and Idioms Translated into French." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/popular-expressions-idioms-translated-into-french-4081772 (accessed December 17, 2017).