French Phrases About Animals

Why is having the cockroach being depressed? What does it mean when you say a drink is cat pee? Learn these and more beastly fun French expressions!

Just as in English, the French have their own set of colorful phrases that draw upon the animal world for inspiration — I won’t even mention frogs here. Here’s a sampling of phrases and expressions translated to English, inspired by our furry and feathered friends. It should give you an insight into the cultural nuances of French life and will helpfully prevent you from speaking like a Spanish cow! –Wally

The expression “La nuit, tous les chats sont gris” translates to “At night, all cats are gray.”

It’s attributed to Benjamin Franklin as a reason to take an older woman to bed!
Don’t waste that good jam on these pigs

Don’t waste that good jam on these pigs

Pigs

C’est donner de la confiture aux cochons.

What it translates to: It’s like giving jam to pigs.

What it means: That’s like casting pearls before swine, or that’s giving something valuable to people who won’t appreciate them.
 

Manger comme un cochon

What it translates to: To eat like a pig

What it means: To pig out

 

Un cochon n'y retrouverait pas ses petits.

What it translates to: A pig couldn’t find its babies here.

What it means: This place is a pig sty, a complete mess.

Would you dare wake up this lil guy if he was sleeping?

Would you dare wake up this lil guy if he was sleeping?

Cats

Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort.

What it translates to: Don’t wake the sleeping cat.

What it means: Let sleeping dogs lie, or don’t interfere in a situation that’s going well.

 

Un chat dans la gorge

What it translates to: A cat in your throat

What it means: A frog in your throat

 

Appelez un chat un chat

What it translates to: To call a cat a cat

What it means: To call a spade a spade, to speak plainly even if it’ll hurt someone

 

Quand le chat est parti, les souris dansent.

What it translates to: When the cat’s away, the mice start to play dance.

What it means: When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

 

Donner sa langue au chat

What it translates to: To give his or her tongue to the cat

What it means: You might think this means “cat got your tongue,” but it actually means to give up.

 

À bon chat, bon rat

What it translates to: To the good cat, a good rat

What it means: To meet one’s match (some translate this to “tit for tat”)


Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

What it translates to: To have other cats to whip (they better mean cat o’ nine tails and not actual kitties!)

What it means: To have bigger fish to fry

 

Les chiens ne font pas des chats.

What it translates to: Dogs don’t have cats.

What it means: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, like father like son (the kids are like their parents).

 

C’est du pipi de chat.

What it translates to: It’s cat pee.

What it means: This drink is weak or has no flavor.


Il n’y a pas un chat.

What it translates to: There’s no cat.

What it means: Nobody’s here.

 

La nuit, tous les chats sont gris.

What it translates to: At night, all cats are gray.

What it means: In the dark, physical appearance isn’t important. (This is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin as a reason to take an older woman to bed!)

 

Un chat échaudé craint l’eau froide.

What it translates to: A scalded cat fears cold water.

What it means: Once bitten, twice shy, or to have been burned before (to have had a bad experience and be overly cautious in a similar situation).

Would you ever need a drink so badly that you’d harm this adorable Frenchie?

Would you ever need a drink so badly that you’d harm this adorable Frenchie?

Dogs

À boire, ou j’tue le chien!

What it translates to: A drink — or kill the dog!

What it means: I need a drink!

 

Un temps de chien

What it translates to: Dog’s weather

What it means: Bad weather

 

Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe.

What it translates to: Dogs howl, the caravan passes.

What it means: Let them say what they want; I know what I’m doing.

 

Le chien qui aboie ne mord pas.

What it translates to: The dog that barks doesn’t bite.

What it means: His bark is worse than his bite (he’s all talk and no action).

You can’t drown a fish, sillies!

You can’t drown a fish, sillies!

Fish

Noyer le poisson

What it translates to: To drown the fish

What it means: To bamboozle somebody

 

Le petit poisson deviendra grand.

What it translates to: The little fish will get bigger.

What it means: The child will grow up one day, or a little bit can go a long way.

 

Avoir des yeux de merlan frit

What it translates to: To have a fried merlan’s eyes (a merlan is a type of fish — a whiting or merling)

What it means: Bloodshot, runny eyes

 

Comme un poisson dans l’eau

What it translates to: Like a fish in water

What it means: To be comfortable in a particular situation (funny that we have “like a fish out of water.”)

This gals will grow teeth when Hell freezes over

This gals will grow teeth when Hell freezes over

Birds

Quand les poules auront des dents

What it translates to: When hens have teeth

What it means: When Hell freezes over (or when pigs fly)

 

T’es comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau.

What it translates to: You’re like a chicken that’s found a knife.

What it means: You’re very confused.

 

Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps.

What it translates to: One swallow doesn’t mean it’s spring.

What it means: Don’t jump to conclusions.

 

Faire un froid de canard

What it translates to: To be a duck’s cold

What it means: To be really cold

 

Avoir la chair de poule

What it translates to: To have hen’s flesh

What it means: To have goosebumps

 

Une poule mouillée

What it translates to: A wet hen

What it means: Someone who’s easily scared (we say chicken or scaredy cat as well)

 

Petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid.

What it translates to: Little by little, the bird makes its nest.

What it means: A little bit goes a long way.

 

La bave du crapaud n’atteint pas la blanche colombe.

What it translates to: The toad’s spit doesn’t reach the white dove.

What it means: It’s water off a duck’s back, to not let an insult or criticism affect you.

If you don’t know what “la vache” means, you speak French like a Spanish cow

If you don’t know what “la vache” means, you speak French like a Spanish cow

Livestock (Cows, Horses, Donkeys, Sheep)

Être franc comme un âne qui recule

What it translates to: To be as frank as a backtracking donkey

What it means: To lie
 

Parler français comme une vache espagnole

What it translates to: To speak French like a Spanish cow

What it means: To speak French poorly

 

La vache!

What it translates to: The cow!

What it means: My god!


Passer du coq à l’âne

What it translates to: To go from the rooster to the donkey

What it means: To jump from one topic to another


Brider l’âne par la queue

What it translates to: To bridle a donkey by the tail

What it means: To do something lacking common sense

 

Avoir une force de cheval

What it translates to: To have the strength of a horse

What it means: To be strong as an ox

 

Une queue de cheval

What it translates to: A horse’s tail

What it means: A ponytail

 

Ce n’est pas la vache qui crie le plus fort qui donne le plus de lait.

What it translates to: The cow that cries the loudest isn’t the one that gives the most milk.

What it means: The ones that protest the most do the least amount of work.

 

Qui vole un œuf, vole un bœuf.

What it translates to: He who steals an egg steals an ox.

What it means: Stealing is stealing, or a small crime leads to a bigger one.

 

Revenons à nos moutons.

What it translates to: Let’s get back to our sheep.

What it means: Let’s get back to what we were doing.

 

Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs

What it translates to: To put the cart before the oxen.

What it means: To put the cart before the horse, do something in the wrong order, or expect too much

 

On ne fait pas boire un âne qui n’a pas soif.

What it translates to: You can’t make a donkey drink if it’s not thirsty.

What it means: You can’t force a stubborn person to do something they don’t want to do.

 

Laisser pisser le mérinos

What it translates to: To let the merinos piss (merinos are a type of sheep)

What it means: To not react to a provocation (we might say, “It’s like water off a duck’s back.”)

Are you as depressed as this cockroach?

Are you as depressed as this cockroach?

Bugs

Tirer les vers du nez

What it translates to: To pull worms out of the nose

What it means: To try to get someone to talk, reveal information

 

Avoir le cafard

What it translates to: To have the cockroach

What it means: To be down in the dumps

 

Avoir une araignée au plafond

What it translates to: To have a spider on the ceiling

What it means: To have bats in the belfry, to be a little crazy

 

On n’attrape pas les mouches avec du vinaigre.

What it translates to: You don’t catch flies with vinegar.

What it means: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (if you want something from someone, be nice and flattering).


Avoir des fourmis

What it translates to: To have ants

What it means: To feel pins and needles


Une écriture en pattes de mouche

What it translates to: Fly’s leg writing

What it means: Writing that’s too small to read, chicken scratch

Gross! Nobody likes a badly licked bear!

Gross! Nobody likes a badly licked bear!

Bears

Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué

What it translates to: To sell the bear’s skin before you’ve killed it

What it means: To count your chickens before they’re hatched

 

Un ours mal léché

What it translates to: A badly licked bear

What it means: An unsociable or uncouth person

Speak of the wolf and the Devil appears (or something like that)

Speak of the wolf and the Devil appears (or something like that)

Wolves

Quand on parle du loup (on en voit la queue).

What it translates to: When you speak of the wolf (you see its tail).

What it means: Speak of the Devil (and he appears).

 

J’ai une faim de loup.

What it translates to: I have a wolf’s hunger.

What it means: I’m starving (hungry like the wolf, à la Duran Duran?)

Marmots, like this fellow, really know how to get a good night’s sleep

Marmots, like this fellow, really know how to get a good night’s sleep

Miscellaneous Animals

Dormir comme une marmotte

What it translates to: To sleep like a marmot (a giant, chubby squirrel, apparently)

What it means: To sleep like a log


Se faire poser un lapin

What it translates to: To be given a rabbit

What it means: To be stood up


S’ennuyer comme un rat mort

What it translates to: To be as bored as a dead rat

What it means: To be bored to death


Mémoire d’éléphant

What it translates to: An elephant’s memory

What it means: Similar to our expression, “An elephant never forgets.”

 

C’est la montagne qui accouche d’une souris.

What it translates to: The mountain gave birth to a mouse.

What it means: The big event turned out to be a major disappointment.

 

Ce n’est pas aux vieux singes qu’on apprend à faire des grimaces.

What it translates to: It’s not with old monkeys that you learn to make faces.

What it means: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Apparently the French and English agree that foxes are sly 

Apparently the French and English agree that foxes are sly 

Same as in English

Rusé comme un renard

What it translates to and what it means: Sly as a fox

 

Prendre le taureau par les cornes

What it translates to and what it means: To take the bull by the horns


Têtu comme une mule

What it translates to and what it means: Stubborn as a mule

 

Sources: Babbel, elearningfrench.com, Immersion Place, Voulez Vouloz