Everyone knows that French people take their food seriously. From Michelin star restaurants to Julia Child, french food is considered to be haute gastronomie.
So as you can imagine, there are quite a few funny French food expressions and idioms that have invaded the lexicon. As an anglophone, I was at first baffled by “occupying onions”. Now, after living here 10 years, I can tell you about a few “purées” as well 😉
I. Expressions about Entrées
1. Raconter des salades
Translation: Telling salads
Meaning: Telling tall tales or telling lies.
Do you know that politician who continually lies? “Il raconte des salades“, meaning “he is telling salads”.
2. Cracher dans la soupe
Translation: Spitting in the soup
Meaning: Throwing away something that is good. Being ungrateful.
Soup used to be one of the mainstays of dinner, especially when times were hard, so this was someone really being ungrateful. (No word on if this refers specifically to the classic French onion soup.)
The English equivalent would be “biting the hand that feeds you”.
3. Va te faire cuire un œuf
Translation: Go cook an egg
Meaning: Go away, stop bothering me.
“Tu m’énerves! Va te faire cuire un œuf!” meaning “you are annoying me! Go away and cook an egg!”
II. Idioms about Vegetables
1. Rouge comme une tomate
Translation: Red like a tomato
Meaning: to be embarrassed
If you embarrass easily, you are well aware of this one. It is the same expression in English, turning red as a tomato.
2. Être dans les choux
Translation: Is in the cabbage
Meaning: to be in a mess
“Oh! C’est terrible, je suis dans les choux“, meaning “oh that’s terrible, I’m in trouble!” The English equivalent would be “up the creek without a paddle”.
3. Les carottes sont cuites
Translation: The carrots are cooked
Meaning: There is no more hope
“Les carrots sont cuites, les Allemands arrivent” meaning “there is no more hope, the Germans have arrived”.
4. Occupe-toi de tes oignons!
Translation: Take care of your onions
Meaning: Stay out of my business
“Ce ne sont pas tes oignons, mêle-toi de tes affaires!“, meaning “these are not your onions, meddle in your own affairs!”. The English equivalent would be “stay in your own lane”.
5. C’est la fin des haricots
Translation: It is the end of the beans.
Meaning: Everything is lost.
Haricots, specifically green beans, is the basic accompaniment to most French dishes since it is so cheap and easy to prepare. So it really is the end of the world if there are no more green beans!
6. Mettre du beurre dans les épinards
Translation: Put butter in the spinach
Meaning: Improve the situation
Another “basic” vegetable that gets a revamping here is the boring ol’ spinach. Add some butter to it, and voila, it suddenly tastes a lot better. Ot at least that is how the theory goes. “Je voulais juste mettre du beurre dans les épinards et faire assez d’argent pour voyager,” meaning “I just wanted to make the best of it, and make enough money to travel”.
7. Avoir un cœur d’artichaut
Translation: Have the heart of an artichoke
Meaning: Being soft-hearted, falling easily in love
This French expression may not make sense immediately, but in this case, the artichoke represents the heart. With a similar shape and with many layers that come off that you can eat. Not sure the artichoke is as enjoyable as falling in love, but anyway…
III. Expressions about Main Dishes
1. Oh purée!
Translation: Oh mashed food!
Meaning: Oh my goodness!
This doesn’t really have anything to do with mashed food, it is the French version of “oh my gosh”, without any swearing. “Il a fait quoi? Oh purée!” meaning “he did what? Omg!”
2. Être une quiche
Translation: Is a quiche
Meaning: is an idiot
3. Avoir le cul bordé de nouilles
Translation: Have an a$$ full of noodles
Meaning: to be very lucky
This expression is a bit on the R-rated side, but it actually means to be very lucky. The expression dates back to the 1950s from Marseille, which if you have been to the city, you know that it is the land of exaggeration. (And I say that as one with plenty of family in the area!)
It is an interesting quote because pasta doesn’t really feature in a lot of traditional French recipes. A reference to next-door Italy perhaps?
☞ READ MORE: ABC of French Cuisine (the Food Dictionary)
IV. Idioms about Condiments
1. La moutarde lui monte au nez
Translation: Mustard climbing up the nose
Meaning: to start to get angry
You know when you start to get angry, and the nerves in the nose start to twitch? Dijon mustard is a specialty from the town of Dijon in north-east France and is known for being particularly spicy. So just imagine how annoyed you would be if some dijon mustard went up your nose.
(French people are not that big fans of ketchup, but I suppose that would be rather annoying as well.)
2. Mettre son grain de sel
Translation: Put in his grain of salt
Meaning: to contribute his opinion
The English equivalent here would be “to contribute his two cents”.
3. Tourner au vinaigre
Translation: Turn the vinegar
Meaning: to head towards a confrontation
This French expression refers to when old vinegar turns acidy. In effect, when the conversation turns to vinegar, that means it is heading towards a fight.
4. Mettre du piment dans sa vie
Translation: Put a chili in your life
Meaning: Add some spice to your life
“Mettre du piment dans son couple“, meaning to add some spice to your love life.
5. Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un
Translation: Break a sugar(cube) on the back of someone
Meaning: to say something bad about someone behind their back
This one is not the most obvious one, because sugar is usually considered something nice. However in France in the 17th century, “se sucrer de quelqu’un”, meant “to treat someone badly” or to “take him for an idiot”.
So to break sugar on someone’s back was considered treating them badly by badmouthing them.
6. Être beurré
Translation: Become buttered
Meaning: to be drunk
“Beurré” in this case, is a slang way of saying “bourré”, meaning drunk.
V. Expressions about Drinks
1. Mettre de l’eau dans son vin
Translation: Put water in one’s wine
Meaning: to become more moderate
Originally from the 15th century, this expression has to do with watering down one’s opinions and expectations. French people drink a lot of wine (especially during dinner), so as you can imagine, nobody wants to ruin good wine.
There are many more lovely French wine expressions you can read here.
2. Entre 2 eaux
Translation: Between two waters
Meaning: to refuse to pick between two positions
For those who don’t want to pick sides, they are said to be “entre 2 eaux“. It is also about staying the course, and not letting the tide pull you in any direction.
In certain cases, it can also refer to people who drink a lot.
VI. Expressions about Cheese
1. En faire tout un fromage
Translation: Making all a cheese out of it
Meaning: Making a big deal out of something that is not so important.
So if you like to make mountains out of molehills, basically “tu fait tout un fromage“. There are over 1600 cheeses in France, so you know that French people like cheese.
2. Triste comme un repas sans fromage
Translation: Sad as a dinner without cheese
Meaning: to be very sad
A typical French meal is complete without a small cheese plate, so you know this is serious to not have any cheese.
VII. Idioms about Bread
1. Avoir du pain sur la planche
Translation: Have bread on a cutting board
Meaning: to have a lot of things to accomplish
Historically, French farmers used to bake bread in large quantities and conserve on a planche for the future. Eventually, that turned into having a lot of things to do, in order to prepare the bread.
The English equivalent would be “to have a lot of things on one’s plate”, or to “have one’s work cut out for them”.
2. Pour un morceau de pain
Translation: For a piece of bread
Meaning: for something small/inexpensive in return
“Pendant que les pauvres se battaient pour attraper un morceau de pain, Marie-Antoinette mangait du gâteau.” While the poor were fighting for a piece of bread, Marie-Antoinette was eating cake.
3. Avoir du blé
Translation: To have wheat
Meaning: To have money
From a time when having wheat meant having food to it, this French food expression is all about having argent (money).
VIII. Expressions about Fruit
1. Couper la poire en deux
Translation: Cut the pear in two
Meaning: to cut something in half
Unlike the English equivalent of “cutting the baby in two”, which means that it is difficult to cut something in two, the French version of cutting pears means that it is being divided equally and fairly.
2. Ramener sa fraise
Translation: Bring the strawberry
Meaning: to act pretentious, to intervene in an unjustified manner.
The strawberry in this case refers to having a big head. This is a relatively new expression, originating from French argot (slang). (By the way, have you tried our strawberry mousse recipe?)
3. J’ai la pêche!
Translation: I have the fish!
Meaning: to be full of energy
It is not really clear where this expression comes from, but it is thought to come from the world of boxing where the expression “d’avoir la pêche” means to have a lot of strength.
4. Avoir la banane
Translation: to have a banana
Meaning: to be pleased
You may have been able to guess, this French expression has to do with that big banana smile :p
IX. Expressions about Desserts
1. Pleurer comme une madeleine
Translation: Cry like a madeline cake
Meaning: to cry a lot
Madeleine is a small French cake but in this case it used to refer to prostitutes who were called madeleines. (This is why Madeline is not a popular girl’s name in France.)
Why madeleines? It refers to the biblical Mary Magdalene, who as we all know was slandered as a prostitute. France claims a close connection to Mary Magdalene as it is presumed to be the place she died in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in the South of France.
2. Cerise sur le gâteau
Translation: Cherry on the cake
Meaning: The perfect thing to top off
A one that English speakers will be familiar with “the icing on the cake” or the “cherry on top” of that French dessert. The perfect way to end this list, n’est-ce pas?
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