10 untranslatable French phrases

The language of Molière is full of expressions and nuances that are difficult for its students to understand. These phrases that are unique to the French language, are used in everyday situations.

Paul Taylor, an English YouTuber who lives in Paris, has humorously listed the most common untranslatable French phrases in a video on his YouTube channel What The Fuck France. In this article, I will explain the meaning of the expressions that feature in his video.

Figurative French Phrases

Il pleut comme vache qui pisse

This French phrase is difficult to express in English, but there is an equivalent in the language of Shakespeare: “it’s raining cats and dogs”. The french expression means that it is raining heavily. It refers to a cow that spills an impressive amount of urine while peeing. 

Boutonner mardi avec mercredi 

This funny french expression can work with any day of the week. For example: “boutonner le dimanche avec le lundi ”. It means a person has messed up while buttoning their shirt or mismatched their shoes. Use it with your friends to sound like a native French speaker.  

10 untranslatable French phrases. 

Here - Il pleut comme vache qui pisse.
A cartoon of a man with an umbrella and cats and dogs falling from the sky
Raining cats and dogs is “Il pleut comme vache qui pisse” in French!

Untranslatable French expressions about time

Belle lurette 

This French expression means “a long time ago” and would be completely lost in translation. The word lurette does not exist in the French language. It actually comes from the word “heurette”, used in Burgundy and meaning “une petite heure”. There are many regional expressions (Picardy, Limousin, etc.) that have become common throughout France over the years. Added to the word “belle”, the expression signifies ‘it has been a while’ or ‘a long time ago’ depending on the context. 

Minute papillon 

This unique French expression means ‘just hang on’ or simply a request to wait. It first appeared in the 20th century. Its origin is controversial. It could refer to butterflies that live only for a day. Another explanation includes journalists from the Canard Enchainé, a popular French newspaper, who often went to a nearby café. There, a waiter named Papillon would often respond to customers’ requests with a “I’ll be there in a minute!”. This is how the journalists gave him a nice nickname: Minute Papillon. 

French phrases about luck and health

À la tienne Étienne ! 

This useful french phrase means “cheers” or “to your health”/ “à la vôtre” and comes from a bawdy song of the same name. When drinking, it is customary in France to say this popular expression even if your name is not Etienne. It is fun to say because it rhymes.

Merde !

It’s actually a word that the French use very often to express surprise, annoyance or stress. It is also an untranslatable French expression that means “good luck” or “break a leg”. It is told to a person who is about to go on stage or who is about to take an exam. 

Its origins date back to the 19th century when most people travelled by horse carriage. The horses defecated in the streets and the surroundings of the theatres were not spared. The amount of excrement reflected the success of a play. This is why people got into the habit of wishing each other “shit” before a performance and now before an exam or an important event that requires courage.  

A few other authentic French phrases

C’est coton ! 

This is used to talk about something complicated or a situation that is strenuous. It dates back to the cotton weaving productions in the 19th century which were particularly arduous. 

Les Anglais ont débarqué ! 

This funny French expression signifies that a woman has her period. It originated in the 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars. When they landed in France, the English soldiers wore red uniforms. After the war, the French made a connection between the colour of the English soldiers’ uniforms and the blood that flows when a woman has her period.  

Je dis ça je dis rien 

This wacky French expression is used to give one’s opinion without imposing it. The person wants to share his opinion with someone, but the receiver is free to not follow it. This is a new phrase that is popularised by the Internet. The English equivalent would be ‘I am just saying’. 

J’en perds mon latin

This means “to not know what to say or do”.  The origin dates back to a 14th century poem which makes reference to birds losing their Latin at the end of summer. The usage has changed over the years to mean being lost in the face of a decision or being confounded by something. The English equivalent would be to say “I am losing my mind” or “to be at your wit’s end”.

These are the 10 untranslatable French phrases that I noted while watching Paul Taylor’s What The Fuck France video. I suggest you learn them by heart, as they are unique French phrases. To learn more about the subtleties of the French language and the customs of this country, I invite you to book your French language stay in Limousin. This five day immersion program includes visits and activities to boost your level in French. You might even learn some new colloquial French expressions! I hope you enjoyed reading this article and that you learned something.

If you want to read this article in French, check here: 10 expressions françaises intraduisibles

Want to ask me a question? Write a comment on the Your online French teacher blog! Or do you want  French language lessons ? Contact me for a quote or for the program of individual and group French classes. 

Sincerely yours,

Élodie – Your online French teacher

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