On April 8, we explored a variety of French idioms at a special members-only educational workshop with teacher Julien Delbasty. Below are some of the fun expressions that are used in French daily life, along with some possible insights into their origins.
The expression: Donner sa langue au chat
What it means: to give up; stop guessing; literally, to give your tongue to the cat
The origin: Animals appear in a lot of idiomatic expressions; this one features a cat. The idea here is that if you are trying to guess something, but continue to get it wrong, your tongue no longer has any use so you might as well give it to the cat! However, another possible explanation dates to the 19th century, when cats were considered the gatekeepers of secrets. If you couldn’t solve a riddle, you would give the cat your tongue and he would tell you the secret/answer!
The expression: Avoir du pain sur la planche
What it means: to have a lot of work to do; to have one’s work cut out for them; literally, to have bread on the bread board
The origin: Like animals, a lot of French idiomatic expressions consist of food words. For this one, think of a baker who has a lot of bread to bake and hungry customers to feed! He puts loaf after loaf onto his planche to bake in the oven. Someone who has “du pain sur la planche” is as busy as a baker, with much proverbial bread to bake.
The expression: Raconter des salades
What it means: to tell stories; lie; literally, to tell salads
The origin: A salad seems like a healthy thing, a good thing. So why would it be associated with telling lies? Salads are typically made with a variety of bold-colored vegetables that, when mixed together, are easier to eat whole rather than each vegetable separately. Like lies, sometimes a mixed salad is “easier to swallow!”
The expression: Devenir chèvre
What it means: get angry; literally, to become a goat
The origin: Goats were (and are) thought to have an aggressive temperament. Interestingly, the origin of this phrase comes from the French practice of housing goats with cattle, as it was believed the cattle had a calming effect. Thus, if you “got someone’s goat” it would result in agitated cattle.
The expression: Avoir le coup de foudre
What it means: love at first sight; literally bolt of lightning
The origin: Love is electrifying, right?! Like a bolt of lightning, it can provide a “shock to the system.”