Twelve Popular Animal-Related Idioms in French

Just like the English language, French has many idioms and expressions involving animals. Some of these have relatively similar English equivalents, whereas others have seemingly nonsensical direct translations! Either way, learning these idiomatic expressions is a great way to understand more of the French that you read and hear, and speak more like a native.

rire comme une baleine

Illustration of a whale

Meaning: to laugh one’s head off, to roar with laughter

Lit.: to laugh like a whale

Example: Quand elle m’a raconté l’histoire, j’ai ri comme une baleine. When she told me the story, I laughed my head off.

Note: you might also see se marrer comme une baleine as a variation of this idiom. (Se marrer is just an informal word for rire.)

être fait comme un rat

An illustration of a rat

Meaning: to be cornered, to have no escape, to be trapped

Lit.: to be trapped like a rat

Example: Dès que la police a encerclé la maison, le suspect était fait comme un rat. As soon as the police surrounded the house, the suspect was trapped.

Note: fait can be used as an informal word for “trapped”.

être serrés comme des sardines

Illustration of a sardine

Meaning: to be packed like sardines, to be crowded very close together

Lit.: to be packed like sardines

Example: Les voyageurs étaient serrés comme des sardines. The passengers were packed like sardines.

sauter du coq à l’âne

Illustration of a rooster

Meaning: to jump from one subject to another, to suddenly change the subject

Lit.: to jump from the rooster to the donkey

Illustration of a donkey

Example: Il saute du coq à l’âne sans arrêt. He constantly jumps from one subject to another.

Note: you may see this idiom used with passer instead of sauter. Both variations have the same meaning.

avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

Illustration of a cat

Meaning: to have other fish to fry

Lit.: to have other cats to whip

Example: Je ne peux pas sortir ce soir, j’ai d’autres chats à fouetter. I can’t go out tonight, I’ve got other fish to fry.

être rusé comme un renard

An illustration of a fox

Meaning: to be as cunning as a fox, to be sly

Lit: to be cunning like a fox

Example: Je ne ferais pas confiance à Bruno, il est rusé comme un renard. I wouldn’t trust Bruno, he’s as sly as a fox.

quand les poules auront des dents

Illustration of a hen

Meaning: pigs might fly, when pigs fly

Lit.: when hens have teeth


<< Un jour, je serai un millionnaire. >>

<< Oui, quand les poules auront des dents ! >>

“One day, I’ll be a millionaire.”

“Yes, and pigs might fly!”

avoir un chat dans la gorge

An illustration of a cat

Meaning: to have a frog in one’s throat, to be hoarse

Lit.: to have a cat in one’s throat

Example: Il a eu un chat dans la gorge pendant son discours. He had a frog in his throat during his speech.

temps de chien

An illustration of a dog

Meaning: dreadful weather

Lit.: dog’s weather

Example: Il fait un temps de chien ! It’s dreadful weather!

revenons à nos moutons !

Illustration of a flock of sheep

Meaning: let’s get back to the topic at hand, let’s get back on track (after a digression)

Lit.: let’s come back to our sheep!

Example: << Nous avons encore changé de sujet ! Alors, revenons à nos moutons ! >> “We’ve changed the subject again! Right, let’s get back on track!”

parler le français comme une vache espagnole

An illustration of a red and yellow cow

Meaning: to speak poor French, to speak French really badly

Lit.: to speak French like a Spanish cow

Example: Je ne peux pas du tout le comprendre, il parle le français comme une vache espagnole. I can’t understand him at all, his French is awful.

en parlant du loup

An illustration of a wolf

Meaning: speaking of the devil

Lit.: speaking of the wolf

Example: << Tiens, en parlant du loup, voilà Paul qu’arrive. >> “Hey, speaking of the devil, here comes Paul now.”

Note: in the same way that we say “speak of the devil” in English, you can also say quand on parle du loup in French.

The “full” expression is quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue (Lit.: when we speak of the wolf, we see its tail.), or en parlant du loup, on en voit la queue. However, people don’t tend to say the second clause. Again, this is similar to English. The “full” expression is “speak of the devil, and it shall appear”, but we just tend to say “speak(ing) of the devil.”

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