10 French Idioms with Animals

In a previous post, we talked about things you could say to sound more French. Yes, pronunciation and grammar are important, but French expressions and slang are equally important. If you want to sound more French, you need to learn some key expressions that native French speakers use.

In this lesson, we will talk about French idioms, but not just any idioms. We will talk about 10 French idioms with animals. There are many of them. Some of them are funny, and others don’t even make sense in English, but they’re commonly used nonetheless. Would you like to learn more? Keep on reading, and by the end of this post, you will know some useful French idioms.

1. Avoir le Cafard

This is a classic and one of the most common French idioms. It literally translates as “to have the cockroach”. We use this idiom to express we’re feeling down or blue.

Cafard probably comes from Arabic kafir which means “with no religion”. It eventually evolved to mean “hypocrite”. The expression was later popularized by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in his book Les Fleurs du mal, and it’s still used to this day.

So, if someone asks you how you’re doing, and it’s been a bad day, you can safely say, “J’ai le cafard“.

2. Avoir les Fourmis dans les Jambes

This is another idiom with insects. In this case, we’re talking about ants (fourmis) in the legs. It means you feel your legs are tingling.

This idiom goes back to the 19th century, although it’s not clear how it became popular. It’s used to express the uncomfortable sensation we have after being in a certain position for a long time. Blood does not circulate properly, and thus, we feel ants in our legs.

3. Poser un Lapin

A small brown rabbit.

Now, let’s imagine we agreed to have lunch with our best friend at 1. The clock strikes 1, 1:10, 1:20, and finally 1:30. He didn’t show up nor called. He stood us up. The French would say, “Il nous a posé un lapin“.

Poser un lapin literally translates as “put down a rabbit (on someone)”. We use it to express someone stood us up. The origin of this idiom goes back to the 19th century when rabbits were associated with fertility or abundance. Back then, poser un lapin meant leaving without paying the favors of a woman. It later evolved to mean what it means today. Interesting, huh?

4. Avoir une Faim de Loup

The meaning of this idiom is straightforward. It translates as “to be as hungry as a wolf”. We use this idiom to express we’re starving. It’s also the equivalent of “being able to eat a horse”. In any case, we use it to imply a great hunger or appetite.

The origin of this idiom goes back to the 17th century. The wolf has always been regarded as an animal with a ravenous appetite; hence, the origin of this idiom.

5. Revenons à nos Moutons

Do you know someone who rambles on when speaking? If you ever talk to a French person, and he starts doing this, you might want to tell him, “Revenons à nos moutons“. It literally means “let’s get back to our sheep”. We use it to invite others to retake the original topic of a conversation, in other words, to get back on track.

This idiom is attributed to La Farce de Maître Pathelin, a medieval play where sheep are involved at a trial.

6. Oh la Vache!

It literally means Oh the cow! We use it to express the same idea as Oh my god! But where does the cow come from?

Well, it turns out that during the 17th century, farmers would bring their cows into towns to show people that their milk was fresh. Those who saw the cows would often express “la vache!” to express their admiration or surprise.

7. Donner sa Langue au Chat

A white and black cat showing its teeth.

When something is too hard and you give up, we can say, “tu as donné ta langue au chat“. It translates to “give your tongue to the cat”. It’s the rough equivalent of the English idiom “to throw in the towel”.

The original expression was jetter sa langue aux chiens (throw your tongue to the dogs) and goes back to the 17th century. The meaning was the same. When you didn’t have the answer to something and you just gave up, you threw your tongue to the dogs because it was useless. It later evolved into cats as they became more popular.

8. Dormir comme une Marmotte

It literally means “to sleep like a groundhog”. It’s the rough equivalent of “to sleep like a log”.

It is believed this idiom goes back to the mid 18th century. It was discovered a groundhog hibernates for six months every year. It was the perfect way to call someone who slept soundly, right?

Other variations include dormir comme une souche (stump), dormir comme une pierre (stone), and dormir comme une loutre (otter).

9. Quand les Poules Auront des Dents

Literally translated as “when chickens have teeth”, we use this idiom to express that something will never happen or the chances are really slim. It’s the rough equivalent of “when pigs fly”.

The origin of this idiom goes back to the 18th century. However, the original idiom was “quand les poules pisseront“, meaning “when chickens pee”. It eventually evolved to replace piss with teeth and is the version that remains to our day.

10. Un Froid de Canard

It literally means “a duck-like cold”. We use it to express the weather’s too cold, it’s freezing.

It is not clear when this idiom started to be used. All we know is that ducks migrate during winter to escape the cold, and that’s when hunters get them. However, they have to hide and wait in the freezing cold that penetrates their bones. Hence the expression.


There you have it…10 French idioms with animals. Keep in mind the idioms mentioned above are informal. They’re not something you would use in a business or academic setting. Only use them in a casual setting with friends or family. You will impress them!

Which expression was your favorite? Let me know in the comments below. Au revoir!

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4 thoughts on “10 French Idioms with Animals”

  1. Hi there, learning French idioms with animals actually makes it much more fun, and easier to remember if you also know what it actually means. I love the one when somebody is rambling on and you tell them “revenons a nos moutons”,  “to get back to their sheep”. It would be interesting to know if any of these idioms have a specific response associated with them. 

    • Hi, Line,

      I do agree with you. Languages are full of interesting things.

      In answer to your question, that would be an interesting topic.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very entertaining and informative. My favorite was “Revenons à nos moutons”. Now I just have to find out how to pronounce that!

    Learning how idioms are used in other languages (and how they cannot be sensibly and literally translated) is very intriguing. I can imagine some of these factoids being used in a game of trivia!

    • Hi, Dbrae,

      I appreciate your comment. That is one of my favorite idioms as well.

      And I’m sure there must be some trivia games out there.

      If you would like to learn more about the French culture and language, I recommend you check out my blog. I try to update it regularly.

      Thanks for commenting.


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