Posted on by Peter Editor

Apples, Butter, Rain and More in French Idioms

 Three ApplesIn our last post, Sausages, Fruits, Ships, and more in German Idioms, we listed a number of typical German expressions. In fact, what prompted us to write it, was overhearing a German woman "translate" a German idiom into French by giving a literal equivalent.
In their literal translation, many French idioms are also confusing to a German or English speaker.
Below are 12 French idioms that you might not have heard yet.
(Whenever available, I added a French synonym from Le Petit Robert, a popular French language dictionary.)

1. Haut comme trois pommes

Idiom: knee-high to a grasshopper
Literally: as high as three apples (Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash)
Explanation: Refers to someone who is not very tall, or just very young.
Origin: Even if you put three apples on top of each other, what you have is still not very high.

2. Tomber dans les pommes

Idiom: to pass out
Literally: to fall into the apples
Explanation: to faint, lose consciousness [Petit Robert: s'évanouir]
Origin: This expression first appeared in 1889 and may go back to the writer George Sand, who used "être dans les pommes cuites", a play on "être cuit" (to be cooked, exhausted).

3. Mettre du beurre dans les épinardsSpinach in pan

Idiom: to put butter on your bread
Literally: to put butter on the spinach (Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash)
Explanation: It means to earn a bit extra, to top up your income, or to improve a situation that is troublesome. [Petit Robert: améliorer sa situation]
Origin: This expression goes back to a time when butter symbolized wealth, while spinach was a common vegetable. Putting butter on your spinach makes it taste better, richer.

4. Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre

Idiom: to have your cake and eat it too
Literally: to want the butter and the money for the butter too
Explanation: You can't have it both ways, you can't have it all.
Origin: This expression appeared at the end of the 19th century and is a piece of good old fashioned common sense (bon sens paysan). Once you sell the butter, you have the money, but no longer the butter. Or, in other words, to get something you want you may have to give up something else.

Rainbow at Arcachon, France5. Parler de la pluie et du beau temps

Idiom: to make small talk
Literally: to talk about rain and nice weather
Explanation: It means talking about trivial things, exchanging chit-chat. [Petit Robert: dire des banalités]
Origin: The weather is an innocuous subject to talk about, so it's a safe topic among strangers or a way to talk around topics you want to avoid.

6. Faire la pluie et le beau temps

Idiom: to call the shots
Literally: to make rain and good weather
Explanation: It means to be in charge, to control the situation or determine what action should be taken [Petit Robert: être très influent]
Origin: The idiom is said to go back to mythical times when the gods had power over the world. They could change the weather, create storms, hurl lightning, etc.

7. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.Looking at the ocean

Idiom: It's not that big a deal.
Literally: It's not the sea to drink.
Explanation: This is a metaphor for something that's impossible or very difficult to do. It's also used in its opposite meaning: C'est la mer à boire - it's very difficult. [Petit Robert: C'est, ce n'est pas difficile.]
Origin: The expression dates back to a 17th century fable by Jean de la Fontaine.

8. Chercher midi à quatorze heures

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literally: to look for noon at 2 pm
Explanation: To complicate things unnecessarily, to see difficulties where there aren't any. [Petit Robert: Chercher des difficultés où il n'y en a pas, compliquer les choses.]
Origin: This expression is said to date back to the 17th century as "chercher midi à onze heures" (to look for noon at 11o'clock), to look for something where's it's not.

Rolled in the flour9. Se faire rouler dans la farine

Idiom: to be taken for a ride
Literally: to get rolled in the flour (Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash)
Explanation: to be fooled, taken in, be cheated  [Petit Robert: tromper]
Origin: Flour-based makeup was often used in the theater and allowed actors to change how they looked and thus fool the audience.

10. Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes.

Idiom: Don't mix apples and oranges.
Literally: One mustn't mix up dishtowels and napkins.
Explanation: Don't mix totally different things, don't combine things that are completely different. [Petit Robert: Il faut séparer, traiter différemment selon leur condition sociale, les choses selon leur valeur.]
Origin: This expression is based on the idea that you must not mix social levels - dishtowels were for servants and the poor, while napkins were for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.

11. Ce n'est pas la mort du petit cheval.Small horse in grass

Idiom: It's not the end of the world.
Literally: It's not the death of the little horse. (Photo by Soledad Lorieto on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not the worst thing that could happen. It's not as bad as it seems, even though it's a disappointment.
Origin: According to an article in Le Figaro by Claude Duneton, the expression "la mort du petit cheval" was probably coined in the 1930s and referred to losing one's bet on a horse that didn't win the race. The expression was picked up by d'Hervé Bazin in the title of his 1950 novel: "La mort du petit cheval." In it, the protagonist makes a shocking discovery about his mother but decides that it's not the end of the world.

12. Avaler des couleuvres

Idiom: to swallow a lie
Literally: to swallow grass snakes
Explanation: to be taken in, to believe anything, to take insults without protest  [Petit Robert: subir des affronts sans protester, croire n'importe quoi]
Origin: This expression came up already in the 17th century and suggests swallowing something slithery, tortuous. The image evokes unscrupulous people who in the olden days added a few grass snakes to a plate of eels without telling their guests or customers.

Learning a few idioms in your second language is not only fun, but it may very well break the conversational ice next time you try out your French, on zoom or in real life.

For the French idioms that are listed here, I looked at a few different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or search for new ones: www.
I consulted Le Petit Robert, a single-volume French dictionary, for synonyms in French and added them to the explanations.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Other Cats to Whip? Learning French Idioms With a Delightful Book.

Other Cats to whip - Gamesforlanguage.comWhat's so great about learning idioms in another language?

An idiom is a characteristic expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the words in it.

So, here's what idioms can do for you:

They take you right into the foreign mindset and give you a different taste of a language and culture.

They make you sound like a native.

They help you fit in.

Knowing common idioms helps you to understand and participate in conversations.

But ...

you must also learn to pronounce an idiom correctly.

And, you have to use the idiom in the right context.

We were recently provided with a free copy of the eBook: “Other Cats to Whip - The Book of French Idioms” by its authors, Zubair Arshad and Graham Clark. For anyone striving beyond a basic knowledge of French, this book is an enjoyable resource.

Its French title D'autres chats à fouetter translates to Other fish to fry, but an embarrassing mispronunciation of the French title – can you guess? - lies at its core.

Graham Clark describes in the book's introduction how he tried to drop the French title phrase into a conversation with his boss in Marseille. Whoops ... The book's authors are therefore serious about their warning: Enjoy these idioms, but just be careful how you use them!

So, do you dare to learn these idioms?

The Set-up

The book gives you 40 common French idioms, each presented with a funny, memorable cartoon illustration.

Then, for each idiom, you see two essential vocabulary items, plus the literal and the idiomatic translation in English. And, for each idiom you get a sentence that uses it in a conversational context.

Here are four features of the book that are especially helpful for language learning:


Many idioms say something about human foibles or characteristic human behavior. Because of that, an idiom tends to evoke a vivid image. That in itself is fun, but the image décoiffer la giraffe - Ruxandra by Gamesforlanguage.comalso help you to remember the expression. Not surprisingly, many of the images in this book involve animals, 18 of the 40, to be exact. Animals are just wonderful dramatic subjects that hold a humorous mirror to ourselves.

But you'll also find idioms with food images (not a surprise either), and those that contain parts of the body or commonplace objects.

The clever and funny illustrations, created by Ruxandra, pick up the literal meaning of the images, and these truly will stay in your mind.

For example, the expression décoiffer la giraffe (literally, to mess up the giraffe's hair), means to do something difficult. Think about it, considering a giraffe's height and hairstyle, and keeping the cartoon in mind, will you ever forget this expression now?

sortir de la gueule d'une vache - Ruxandra by GamesforLanguage.comLEARNING VOCABULARY

For each of the idioms, you are given two basic items of vocabulary. So, as a minimum, you'll have 80 words, mostly nouns and verbs. You'll learn these naturally, as they show up in context, and not categorized as in a French grammar book.

You'll learn a wide  range of common verbs, such as s'occuper (to mind, take care of), tirer (to pull), craindre (be afraid of), sortir (to go out), tomber (to fall), etc. and everyday nouns such as échelle (ladder), haricot (bean), gueule (slang for mouth, face), huître (oyster), ours (bear), etc.

Above all, you'll learn that the literal translation of an idiom may be potentially funny, but not especially helpful for the meaning. Sometimes guessing the meaning can really lead you astray.

Consider the expression sortir de la gueule d'une vache (literally, to come out of the mouth of a cow), which, for example when referring to a shirt, means to be creased or wrinkled.” Would you have guessed that one if it came up in a conversation?


In the collection of expressions and the sentences in which they are used, you'll see a variety ofse faire prendre pour un pigeon - Ruxandra by grammatical structures. Again, you'll learn these as they come up and not as part of a grammar paradigm.

The grammar in the English translation is often quite different from the grammar in the French original. Because of that, you'll tend to internalize the whole of the French idiom - grammar and all - as a chunk of vocabulary.

Just look at these sentences l'apartment est trop cher - Ruxandra by GamesforLanguage.comwhich use idioms in context: L'appartement est trop cher, tu te fais prendre pour un pigeon. (The apartment is too expensive, you're being taken for a ride.) Or: Tu ne peux pas aller au travail comme ça mon chéri, ta chemise est sortie de la gueule d'une vache ! (You can't go to work like that darling, your shirt is all creased!)

Thus by acquiring the structures of a series of idioms, you're also learning essential conversational grammar.

ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages - Ruxandra by Gamesforlanguage.comLEARNING LANGUAGE IN CONTEXT

When using an idiom, you have to be absolutely sure that you understand what it means and that you're using it in the correct context. Some expressions are more informal or slangy than others, so be careful of that, too.

Different languages use different images for corresponding idioms. The image at the center of an idiom in one language may have different connotations in another language.

In other languages, for example, the informal French expression ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages (literally, not to have lights on every floor; meaning: to be stupid) translates into rather different images.

In English, you say to have a screw loose.

In Spanish, you might say faltar un tornillo” (to be short of a screw).

In Italian, it's mancare una rotella (to be missing a small wheel).

In German, you would say nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben (not to have all cups in the cupboard). Would you have guessed that one right off the bat?

Other Cats to Whip - The Book of French Idioms will surely make you laugh and learn some French. I think it's a perfect gift for anyone learning or teaching French!

Purchase Options

The paperback book is shipped from the UK. The most economical option (including shipping) for the US audience is to buy through the author's website. The paperback book is also available on and The eBook version is available on the author's website as well as on and

Disclosure: has no business relationship with the book's authors other than having received a free eBook. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.