Top 10 Bizarre French Expressions

Top 10 Bizarre French Expressions

If you casually chat with French people, you might suddenly be stopped dead by an expression that you find very weird and that you try to translate word by word. Mistake!  Idiomatic expressions are expressions in a given language that are peculiar to itself and cannot be understood when translated literally. Getting lost in “Frenchlation” can often result in hilarious consequences for both the English and French speaker. So, to prevent you possibly looking as confused as this guy, here is a list of our 10 top very bizarre French expressions.

Ayo Ogunseinde

1. J’ai la gueule de bois

Literal translation: J’ai la gueule de bois, I have a wooden face in English means that you have a serious hangover.

To sound like a Parisian

Quand je bois trop de Champagne, j’ai la gueule de bois le lendemain

“When I drink too much Champagne, I have a hangover the day after”

Photo by Paul Morley/ Unsplash

2.  C’est très chouette!

The literal translation of C’est très chouette! in French means It’s very owl in English. Truly bizarre isn’t it? Chouette!, means super or great.

To sound like a Parisian

Le bar de l’hotel au dernier étage de la terrasse est vraiment chouette!

“The roof top bar at the hotel is really great”

3. Ca fait un tabac

Word by word Ca fait un tabac means It makes a tobacco. Another strange idiomatic expression that means to be a hit, or very successful, used for an event, a movie, a novel…

To sound like a Parisian

L’exposition de Irvinn Penn au Grand Palais fait un tabac

Irving Penn’s exhibition at Le Grand Palais is a real success”

4. J’en ai ras-le-bol

The meaning of the expression J’en ai ras-le-bol means I am fed up, I am sick of it, I’ve had enough, but the literal translation means I have a bowl full of it. This is really an informal, colloquial expression. You might have already heard Parisians complaining about the weather, pollution, crowd saying: J’en ai ras le bol. 

To sound like a Parisian

J’en ai ras le bol des grèves de métro

“I am fed up with the train strikes”

5. J’ai le coup de foudre

Un coup de foudre is literally a common term used for thunder storm: a bolt or flash of lightning, or a thunderbolt. The figurative meaning in French refers to love at first sight which also provides a sort of shock. You can have un coup de foudre for someone but also for a place.

To sound like a Parisian

“Le premier jour quand j’ai rencontré Léa, j’ai eu tout de suite un coup de foudre pour elle”

“The first day when I met Lea, it was love at the first sight”

Metro 9, pretty crowded by Roman Königshofer/ Flickr

6. On est serré(es) comme des sardines

If you hear the word sardine, you might think that the French person you speak with is referring to the fish. No, not quite! Etre serré(e) comme des sardines literally means To be tight as sardines. It is often used to describe the crowd in the public transportation.

To sound like a Parisian

Ce matin dans le métro, on était serré(e)s comme des sardines

“This morning in the metro, we were packed in like sardines”

7. La crème de la crème!

The literal meaning of La crème de la crème means The cream of the cream which actually means best of the best. Cream was actually an ingredient that only the richest people could afford in old England. Now, in France, it is used more to designate the most influential people.

To sound like a Parisian

Il n’y a que la crème de la crème d’invitée au vernissage de ce soir

“Only VIPs will be invited to the opening tonight”

8. Tu me tiens au courant?

The literal translation of Tenez-moi au courant is Hold / keep  me at the electricity. It is a very common expression meaning to keep someone posted about news, an event… In this case it means Keep me posted. This expression probably comes from the fact that to communicate by telephone or by telegraph at the beginning of last century, electricity was necessary.

To sound like a Parisian

Tu me tiens au courant pour la soirée de Paolo?

“You’ll keep me posted about Paulo’s party?”

Cow by Tim Green/ Flickr

9. Oh, la vache!

If you learnt French or if you speak it, you certainly know that une vache is translated as a cow. The very familiar expression oh la vache ! literally means whoa the cow! Very similar when we say in English Holy cow! Wow! Damn! It is a mild oath, used to express indignation or admiration.

To sound like a Parisian

Oh la vache! il y a 2 heures d’attente pour l’exposition sur Rodin

“Damn! There is a 2 hour wait to get into the Rodin exhibition”

10. On se fait une toile?      

Instead of using the sentence On va au cinéma? Shall we go to the cinema? French people sometimes use On se fait une toile ? Word by word it means Shall we do a canvas? As movies at the cinema are projected on a canvas, the figurative meaning here makes sense.

To sound like a Parisian

On se fait une toile dimanche après le brunch ?

“Shall we go to the cinema on Sunday after the brunch?”

If you’re in Paris, discovering the city while conversing with your private French teacher can be an enjoyable and a far easier way to improve your skills, understanding, speaking, and accuracy. Explore private French lessons in Paris with French à La Carte here.

In addition to personalized French lessons customized  to match your needs, learning abilities, your schedule, and your location in Paris, French à la Carte also offers themed tours. With our French lessons for Paris lovers, you will learn French while experiencing the daily life of a Parisian, just for a few hours!

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Lead photo credit : French à la Carte

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Based in Paris, Florence is the founder of French a la Carte, an agency that offers private and tailor-made French lessons to expats and also immersion in Paris with private tours in easy French for French learners. Florence is a "Parisienne" with her eyes turned toward abroad, and she has as an endless curiosity for Paris. She feels both like a native and an expat who likes to play the tourist in her own city. She was first a press attachée for ARTE, a Franco-German cultural TV channel, before turning to French language teaching. She founded French à La Carte in 2012. For lovers of Paris who would like to improve their conversational French in a efficient and enjoyable manner, French à La Carte also offers private tours which immerse the students in the vibrancy of Paris, with fulfilling outdoor activities adjusted to the level in French of each student. A pastry and chocolate tour in Saint-Germain-des-Près, the discovery of Paris vibrant neighborhoods, a private visit to the Rodin museum or a tour on the influential & feminist women in Paris, these are examples of what French à La Carte can offer. You can contact her at for more information on French lessons or private tours.