English-French Idioms

German is not the only language with some idioms that sound ridiculous when translated into English! Here is a selection of my favourite french idioms 🙂

C’est pas tes oignons

What does this phrase mean? None of your onions! Err, I mean business. And I know some of you, like me with only GCSE-level French, will be wondering why there is no ‘ne’, but I can assure you that it is apparently common in informal French (and hence why you probably weren’t taught it in your formal French lessons!)

Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre:

Literally it means ‘to have the butter and the money from the butter’ and so the corresponding English phrase is obviously ‘to have one’s cake and eat it’. It’s actually quite a new phrase with its origin unknown, but ‘beurre’ did used to be slang for money, rather like the English equivalent of ‘dough’!

Mettre sa langue dans sa poche

Whether anyone really has the physical capabilities required to carry out the instruction of putting their tongue in their pocket is beyond me – although I suppose it is no less silly than the literal meaning of to hold one’s tongue!

Quand les poules auront des dents

This phrase should probably be made redundant due to a study in 2006 that found that although rare, there are some mutant chickens born each year with teeth, and with advancements in gene therapies it probably is quite possible to engineer chickens with teeth, whereas I am pretty certain pigs that can fly are still a way off!


Raconter des salades

At first glance it seems, to me atleast, quite confusing as to why the french version of to tell lies/to spin yarns translates literally as to tell salads, but Laura K. Lawless from about.com expained the reasoning well; ”..it offers a great image. Start with a bed of lettuce background, add some tomato and carrots for color, flesh it out with a bit of ham or chicken, and dress it up with vinaigrette for a delicious and believable story. ”

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

The French join sides with the Germans with this idiom, as it once again comes from a hunter’s point of view, and means to not sell the bear skin before killing the bear, compared to our farmer’s equivalent of not counting the chickens before they’ve hatched.

Passer comme une lettre à la poste

I’m not sure what the french postal service is like, but I don’t think a phrase comparing the Roayl Mail to everything going smoothly would work as well in this country!

English-German Idioms

English is ram-packed full of idiomatic phrases, and although you can on occasion translate them directly into another language, most of the time the translation will be complete nonsense! So here’s a list of 10 commonly used English idioms with their equally idiomatic German equivalents 🙂

Idiom: to be on cloud nine

Transaltion: auf Wolke sieben schweben/sich im siebenten Himmel befinden

This literally translates as to hover over cloud seven or to find oneself in the seventh sky/heaven


Idiom: to give someone a taste of their own medicine

Translation: es jdm. mit gleicher Münze heimzahlen

Literally this means to pay someone back with the same coin.


Idiom: That’ll be the day

Translation: das möchte ich einmal erleben

Possibly not as good for sarcasm as the English version, it translates as ‘I’d like to experience that one day’

Idiom: Get lost! Beat it!

Translation: Mach ‘ne Fliege!

Although there is a wide range of ways to translate this phrase, this has to be my favourite because of how absurd the direct translation sounds; ‘Do a fly!’


Idiom: Beggars can’t be choosers

Translation: In der Not schmeckt jedes Brot.

In my opinion the German version is much more polite, and it means ‘In adversity all bread tastes good’

Idiom: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched

Translation: Man soll das Fell des Bären nicht verteilen, bevor man ihn erlegt hat.

Hunting is referenced in this saying, with the meaning being; ‘Don’t divide the bear skin before you’ve killed the bear’

Idiom: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Translation: Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr/Alte Bäume soll man nicht verpflanzen/ Der Mensch ist ein Gewohnheitstier.

These three phrases literally mean ‘What little Hans doesn’t learn, will old Hans never learn’, ‘Old trees shouldn’t be replanted’ and ‘Man is a creature of habit’.


Idiom: To be in the doghouse

Translation: der Haussegen hängt schief

This translates as ‘Domestic bliss is hanging askew’. Be careful when you use it though, as it takes bei plus the dative personal pronoun e.g. to say ‘I’m in the doghouse’ is the translation ‘Bei mir hängt der Haussegen schief’


Idiom: Good things come to those who wait

Translation: Geduld bringt Rosen

A sweet saying meaning ‘patience brings roses’

Idiom: the middle of nowhere

Translation: wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen

Literally it means ‘where the fox and hare say good night’