50 French animal sayings

Animals have such character and play such an important role in our lives. Just like English and many other languages, French has a whole raft of sayings based on animals' natures and habits. These sayings really do get used a lot, so it is worth familliarising yourself with them, or risk being comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau !


Here we have given you a list of fifty of the most common French sayings and idioms, with the literal meaning of each, followed by its equivalent in English or a brief explanation if an equivalent doesn't exist.

Le loup et le chien - Les Fables de La Fontaine - dessins originaux de Grandville (1837-1838).
Le loup et le chien - Les Fables de La Fontaine - dessins originaux de Grandville (1837-1838).

Entre chien et loup - Between the dog and the wolf (dusk or 'the witching hour')


As perhaps the most familiar animals in our everyday lives, cats and dogs appear to have inspired the greatest number of French sayings:

S'entendre comme chien et chat - To get along like cats and dogs (To fight like cat and dog)

A bon chat, bon rat - A good cat deserves a good rat (To meet one’s match)

Appeler un chat un chat - To call a cat a cat (To call a spade a spade)

Avoir un chat dans la gorge - To have a cat in the throat (To have a frog in your throat)

Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide - A scalded cat fears cold water (Once bitten, twice shy)

Quand le chat n'est pas là, les souris dansent - When the cat's away the mice will dance (When the cat's away the mice will play)

Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort - Don't wake the sleeping cat (Let sleeping dogs lie)

Avoir d'autres chats à fouetter - To have other cats to whip (To have other fish to fry)

La nuit, tous les chats sont gris - At night, all cats are grey (In the dark, appearance isn't important)

Il n’y a pas un chat - There's not a cat (Nobody's here)

Donner sa langue au chat - To give his or her tongue to the cat (To give up)

Les chiens ne font pas des chats - Dogs don't make cats (Children take after their parents)

Chien qui aboie ne mord pas - A barking dog doesn't bite (His bark is worse than his bite)

Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe - The dogs bark, the caravan moves on (Let them say what they want, I know what I am doing)

Arriver comme un chien dans un jeu de quille - To arrive like a dog in a bowling game (To be a fly in the ointment)

Une vie de chien - A dog's life (A dog's life / difficult life)

À boire, ou j’tue le chien ! - A drink, or I'll kill the dog! (I need a drink!)



Meanwhile, down on the farm:


Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs - To put the plough before the oxen (To put the cart before the horse)

On ne peut faire boire un âne qui n'a pas soif - One cannot make a donkey drink if it isn't thirsty (You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink)

Il faut caresser la vache avant de la traire - You must stroke a cow before milking it (All are not friends that speak us fair)

Prendre le taureau par les cornes - Take the bull by the horns (Has the same meaning in English)

Revenons à nos moutons - Let us get back to our sheep (Let's get back to what we were saying or doing)

Ce n'est pas la vache qui crie le plus fort qui donne le plus de lait - It is not the cow who moos the loudest who gives the most milk (Great talkers are little doers)

Qui vole un œuf, vole un bœuf - He that will steal an egg will steal an ox (He that will steal a pin will steal a pound)

Quand les poules auront des dents - When hens have teeth (Pigs might fly)

On ne peut avoir le beurre, l'argent du beurre et le sourire de la crémière - You can't have the butter, the money for the butter and the smile of the dairymaid (You can't have your cake and eat it too)

Comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau - Like a chicken who's found a knife (Wearing a confused expression)

Un cochon n'y retrouverait pas ses petits - A pig couldn't find its piglets here (This place is a pig-sty)

C’est donner de la confiture aux cochons - It’s like giving jam to pigs (It's like casting pearls before swine)

Passer du coq à l'âne - Pass from the cockerel to the donkey (To change subject)

La brebis galeuse (de la famille) - The black sheep (of the family) (Has the same meaning in English)

Avoir la chair de poule - To have chicken flesh - To have goosebumps

Il fait un froid de canard - The weather is duck's cold (The weather is very cold)


On the wild side:


Avoir une faim de loup - Hungry as a wolf (To be really hungry)

Quand on parle du loup... (on en voit la queue) - Speak of the wolf... (and you’ll see his tail) (Speak of the devil... (and he will arrive))

C'est la montagne qui accouche d'une souris - The mountain gave birth to a mouse (A much anticipated event that was dissappointing )

Ce n'est pas aux vieux singes qu'on apprend à faire des grimaces - You can't teach old monkeys how to pull faces (You can't teach your grandmother how to suck eggs)

Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l'ours... (avant de l'avoir tué) - Do not sell the bear skin... (before you’ve killed the bear) (Don't count your chickens... (before they are hatched))

Avoir des yeux de merlan frit - To have eyes like a fried whiting fish (To be wide-eyed or gawking / hungover)

Peigner la girafe - To comb the giraffe (Carry out a long and pointless task)

Le petit poisson deviendra grand -  The little fish will get bigger  (Children grow up, or a little can go a long way)



On the wing:


Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps - One swallow does not make a spring (One swallow does not make a summer)

Petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid - Little by little the bird builds its nest (Little strokes fell great oaks)

La bave du crapaud n'atteint pas la blanche colombe - The spit of the toad doesn't reach the white dove (Water off a duck's back)



A creeping feeling... :


Avoir une araignée au plafond - To have a spider on the ceiing (To have bats in the belfry)

Chercher la petite bête - To look for the little creature (To nitpick or split hairs)

On n’attrape pas les mouches avec du vinaigre - You don't catch flies with vinegar (To obtain what you want from people, you have to use appropriate means)

Tirer les vers du nez -To pull worms out of the nose (To try to get someone to talk, reveal information)

Avoir le cafard - To have the cockroach (To be down in the dumps)



We hope you've enjoyed this article and that it will help you to not parler français comme une vache espagnole or to speak French like a Spanish cow!*



*To have an incomprehensible way of speaking French. Probably comes from a mistranslation of an Occitan phrase meaning 'mountaineer', referring to seasonal workers the locals struggled to understand.



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