05.07.2016 |

Episode #1 of the course Popular French idioms by Caroline, italki


An idiom (called “expression idiomatique” in French) is saying something in a visual or cryptic way. When idioms are pulled apart, they usually make no sense. So, why are idioms so tempting to use? I think it’s because they are clever and fun shortcuts, not unlike a secret code in a way. Let’s analyse some French idioms, selected on how weird they may sound when you come across them the first time or how different they can be from their English equivalent.

*Note: translations (in the example sections) are loose, as they focus mainly on meanings.

Être dans de beaux draps: to be in beautiful sheets

Meaning: to be in a great deal of trouble. The expression is ironic.

English equivalent: to be in a fine mess / in a right pickle / in hot water / up shit creek

Geek corner: The French word “drap” is pronounced [draw] and it means “sheet” (bedding) but it’s easy to remember it, because the English word “drape” (meaning “curtain”) is definitely connected! Imagine an English “drape” being used as makeshift French “drap”. Notice that this adjective (beau, or sale) is put before the noun, this is slightly unusual. Another quirk is the fact that we use “de”, and not “des”, even though sheets are plural.


Le ministre est dans de beaux draps encore une fois. (The minister is in trouble, yet again)

Si vous perdez tout, vous serez dans de beaux draps! (If you lose everything, you’ll be in a fine mess!)

On est dans de sales draps! (We are up shit creek)

Related expressions: Être dans de sales draps (to be in dirty sheets, meaning the same thing as “être dans de beaux draps”) Être dans la merde (to be in the shit, meaning “being in deep shit”)

Tip to remember the French idiom: Imagine actors, ready to perform a play. All period costumes have disappeared so instead, they drape themselves in sheets (beautiful sheets, dirty sheets, whatever they could find!)

Lire en diagonale: to read in a diagonal

Meaning: to read fast, but superficially (i-e without actually reading all the words /sentences). It’s the opposite of reading properly.

English equivalent: to skim-read

Geek corner: This idiom is self-explanatory. So much so, I didn’t realised it was in idiom until last week, when I notice that one of my student didn’t know what I meant by “reading diagonally”! Don’t forget the word “en” between “lire” and “diagonale”.


  • Tous les matins, je lis le journal en diagonale. (Every morning, I skim-read the newspaper)
  • Les étudiants lisent souvent leurs manuels en diagonal. (Students often read their textbooks really fast, skipping sections)
  • Si tu n’avais pas lu les instructions en diagonale, tu n’aurais pas fait d’erreur. (If you had read the instructions properly, you wouldn’t have made a mistake)

Tip to remember the French idiom: Imagine a book, a finger running down the page, in a diagonal. Only the words on this path are read.

À couper le souffle: to cut the breath

Meaning: amazing, stunning, incredible

English equivalent: breathtaking / to blow your socks off

Geek corner: In English, one’s breath is simply “taken”. In French, it’s “cut”, which sounds way more dramatic! Notice the word “à” at the start of the expression, it’s essential. Don’t forget the article “le” either.


  • Le paysage est à couper le souffle en Nouvelle Zélande. (The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful in NZ)
  • La vue, au dernier étage est à couper le souffle. (The view, on the top floor, is breathtaking)
  • Le film est bourré d’effets spéciaux à couper le souffle. (The film is full of amazing special effects)

Similar expression: En mettre plein la vue (to put full in the view, meaning “to impress”)

Tip to remember the French idiom: Imagine the scenery so stunning it cut your breath, like a razor.

Être dur de la feuille: to be hard of the sheet/leaf

Meaning: to be hard hearing

English equivalent: to be deaf as a post / deaf as a door nail

Geek corner: “Feuille” is a feminine word. It both means “a leaf” (as in from a tree) and “a sheet” (as in a piece of white paper). Neither meaning seems to help making this expression make sense.


  • Ton père doit être dur de la feuille, j’entends sa musique jusqu’ici ! (Your father must be deaf as post, I can hear his music all the way here!)
  • Ne fait pas attention à elle, elle est dure de la feuille de toute façon. (Don’t pay attention to her, she’s hard hearing anyway)

Other similar idiom: Être sourd comme un pot (to be deaf as a pot)

Tip to remember the French idiom: Imagine a silly old man, he thinks if he makes a cone from a sheet of paper and puts it to his ear, he might hear better.

Sage comme une image: nice like a picture

Meaning: to be well-behaved

English equivalent: to be as good as gold / quiet as a mouse

Geek corner: As this idiom rhymes; it should be easier to remember it. “Sage” has two meanings. It could be translated as “wise” or “well-behaved” (Here we refer to the latter only).


  • Son fils est sage comme une image. (Her/his son is as good as gold)
  • Les enfants ont promis d’être sages comme des images pendant les vacances. (Children promised to be well-behaved during the holiday)
  • Il a dit qu’il serait sage comme une image. (He said he would be quiet as a mouse)

Tip to remember the French idiom: The employee of the month is good as gold. His picture is on the wall. Yes, “nice picture”, you say.


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