8 French expressions comically lost in translation

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Years of studying French in the classroom won’t always get you up to speed with some of the funny expressions and idioms that native speakers use. Moreover, being familiar with a language’s idioms can give a lot of cultural context for the language. Knowing expressions and idioms can help make you sound more natural when speaking a foreign language. Here are some useful and comical expressions French folk slip:

1. Avoir le cafard (Lit. to have the cockroach)

Not nearly as unsanitary as it sounds. This expression doesn’t refer to a dirty apartment, but instead means “to feel depressed” or “to feel down.”

Friend 1: Are you okay? You look sad.
Friend 2: Je sais pas… J’ai le cafard. (Translation: I don’t know… I have the cockroach AKA feel down.)

2. Avoir la patate / la pêche (Lit. to have the potato / peach)

These phrases have nothing to do with the produce aisle at the supermarket, nor do they imply you have any produce in your possession. They express happiness and positive energy.

Example 1: J’ai la patate aujourd’hui ! (Translation: I have a potato today AKA I’m happy)
Example 2: J’ai bien dormi, j’ai la pêche ! (Translation: I slept well, I feel great!)

3. S’occuper de ses oignons (Lit. to take care of one’s onions)

When Frenchies say this they’re not talking about gardening or bulb vegetable horticulture. The expression is analogous to “mind your own beeswax” in English.

Student 1: Did you do well on the exam?
Student 2: Occupe-toi de tes oignons!

4. Tomber dans les pommes (Lit. to fall in the apples)

Surprise, surprise, this has absolutely nothing to do with apples. The saying means “to faint.” People also use it to express shock or surprise.

Example: Il était tellement choqué, il a failli tomber dans les pommes ! (He was so shocked, he nearly fainted!)

5. Oh la vache! (lit. Oh the cow!)

Here’s a clue: you don’t say this because you forgot you left the cow in the barn. This phrase is like the French cousin of both the English expressions “Holy cow!” and “Oh my gosh!”

Friend 1: Et là il lui a dit “je t’ai jamais aimé de toute façon…” (And then he said to her “I never loved you anyway…”)
Friend 2: Oh la vache ! (Oh my gosh!)

6. Revenons à nos moutons. (Lit. let’s go back to our sheep)

You don’t say this because you took a break shearing sheep. The expression actually means “let’s get back on subject.” It comes from the 15th century play La Farce de maître Pathelin. In the play, maître Pathelin, a local village lawyer, presents two cases to a judge, one about stolen sheep and one about stolen cloth. While arguing the case about the sheep, he repeatedly brings up the case about the cloth to confuse the judge, who tries to get back to the first case by saying “mais revenons à nos moutons…” (Translation: but let’s get back to our sheep…).

Example: On peut parler de ça plus tard ; pour le moment, revenons à nos moutons.
(Translation: We can speak about that later; for now, let’s get back to the subject.)

7. Avoir la gueule de bois (Lit. to have the wooden face)

This isn’t a diagnosis for treeman syndrome. It actually means “to have a hangover”. It comes from the idea that when you have a hangover your mouth's dry like wood! Clever, eh?!

Example: Je me suis réveillé avec une gueule de bois terrible ce matin.
(Translation: I woke up with a terrible hangover this morning.)

8. Avoir un coup de foudre (Lit. to have a strike of lightning)

This expression means “to fall in love at first sight”. It comes from the idea that falling in love can be just as sudden and unexpected as a lightning strike. You can also use this in reference to objects.

Example for a person: Quand j’ai vu Mélanie pour la première fois j’ai eu un coup de foudre.(When I saw Melanie for the first time, I fell in love at first sight.)

Example for an object: Il a eu un coup de foudre pour l’appartement. (Translation: He fell madly in love with the apartment.)

Check out these French courses for more goofy idioms that you can test out in conversation.