I remember vividly the first time I heard one of my favorite French animal idioms. I was sitting in a friend’s garden in the south-west of France enjoying some late summer sunshine and she was telling me about how the politicians were going to raise taxes again. C’est donner de la confiture aux cochons, she sighed sorrowfully, and poured herself another Ricard. “It’s like giving jam to pigs.”
Cultural attitudes to animals are embedded in our language, and pigs in particular often seem to get a raw deal. Not only do the French not trust them with the homemade confiture, you can accuse someone of “eating like a pig” (manger comme un cochon) or when faced with a real pigsty of a room you might mutter that un cochon n’y retrouverait pas ses petits (“a pig couldn’t find its piglets”). It’s nothing short of porcine prejudice amid these French animal expressions.
An honorable mention for German pigs, who have made great strides in dispelling the stereotype: Schwein haben, (“to have a pig”) is to be lucky. And to express outraged disbelief, go no further than Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift! (“I believe my pig is whistling!”).
French animal idioms display a particular predilection to cats. “Don’t wake that sleeping cat” is ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort. Similarly you don’t get “a frog in your throat”, you get un chat dans la gorge and neither do you “call a spade a spade”, you appelez un chat un chat. “When the cat’s away, the mice start to play dance”: Quand le chat est parti, les souris dansent. “To give your tongue to the cat,” donner sa langue au chat, might look like “cat got your tongue,” but in fact it means to give up.
The French do not sleep like logs; they “sleep like marmots” (dormir comme une marmotte). They don’t wait for hell to freeze over but rather for the day “when chickens have teeth” – quand les poules auront des dents. If a Frenchman tells you you’re like “a chicken who’s found a knife,” t’es comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau, it means you’re very confused. He’s probably right. And don’t worry about counting chickens before they’ve hatched, but try not to “sell the bear’s skin before it’s been killed,” vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué.
Speaking of bears, an unsociable or uncouth person is un ours mal léché, “a badly licked bear.” Don’t hesitate to use it if somebody embarrasses you in a restaurant.
Considering the influence of French culture and language on English – particularly animal vocabulary and collective nouns – it should come as no surprise that many expressions are identical. Prendre le taureau par les cornes is “to take the bull by the horns”. Rusé comme un renard is “sly as a fox”; têtu comme une mule is… yes, exactly.
But some require explanations. I remember wondering why a friend of mine had been “given a rabbit”, and what he intended to do with it. “To be given a rabbit”, se faire poser un lapin, is to be stood up. Avoir le cafard or “to have the cockroach” means to be down in the dumps. Noyer le poisson, “to drown the fish”, is to bamboozle somebody. And the French equivalent of having bats in the belfry? It’s having “a spider on the ceiling”, avoir une araignée au plafond.
Oh – and what was that about killing innocent dogs? À boire, ou j’tue le chien ! is something you might hear somebody yell in a bar when they’re extremely thirsty. I’ve heard that the expression comes from the middle ages, when dogs were used to guard the stores of wine in taverns. Any truth to it? Don’t ask me, I’m like a chicken who’s found a knife.
A Few More French Animal Expressions
- À bon chat, bon rat — literally “to good cat, good rat,” meaning tit for tat
- Faire un froid de canard — literally “ducky cold,” used when it’s really cold
- Être franc comme un âne qui recule — literally “as frank as a backtracking donkey,” meaning to dissemble or lie
- Passer du coq à l’âne — literally “jump from the rooster to the donkey,” meaning to jump from one topic to another
- Brider l’âne par la queue — literally “to bridle a donkey by the tail,” meaning to do something lacking common sense
- S’ennuyer comme un rat mort — literally “to be as bored as a dead rat,” which is a bit self-explanatory
- Laisser pisser le mérinos — literally “to let the merinos piss,” meaning to not react to a provocation
- La vache ! — literally “the cow!” used like “my god!” or perhaps more aptly, “holy cow!”
- Quand on parle du loup (on en voit la queue) — litreally “speak of the wolf (and you see its tail),” meaning speak of the devil (and he appears)