The Foreign Rational

The world as seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

Well bonjour! Are you perhaps learning French but feel a bit frustrated at the masculine and feminine nouns, antiquated verb tenses, and illogical conjugation? How about we give up all that and focus on something much more fun.

Idioms and expressions allow us to peer into the culture behind the languages we learn. For English speakers learning French, you’ll find some expressions are direct translations of one another, like “an eye for an eye” becomes “oeil pour oeil” or “better late than never” becomes “mieux vaut tard que jamais.

Others can easily be deduced, like “two birds one stone” is “d’une pierre deux coups” — literally “two hits one stone,” as the French don’t seem to have a vendetta against our feathered friends.

Then there are those you wouldn’t guess in a million years, like “courir sur le haricot” (running on the bean) when you’re annoyed, or to be “aux petits oignons” (at the little onions) when you’re taking scrupulous care of someone.

For now though, I’d like to focus on expressions of a different kind. Those that have their equivalent in English, but where the French version is simply better.

1. Roll up your sleeves

Ready to get some work done? Good, so are the French. Although perhaps not quite the same kind of work. When you hear “roll up your sleeves” you probably imagine a businessperson getting ready to help the team get the ball rolling while burning the midnight oil.

Not in France, non non. Rolling up sleeves is pedestrian, a clear fashion faux pas. In the country of high cuisine, when you’re ready to work, you:

Mets la main à la pâte (put your hands in the dough).

Go have fun with your suits, you workaholic Americans. In la belle France, we’re making baguettes.

2. A lot on my plate

Sometimes you want to roll up your sleeves and get work done but there’s just too much to do. Your plate has so much on it you can’t possibly eat everything.

The French understand; they have busy days too. There’s only so much you can get done during a 35-hour workweek. However, for a French person, having too much on your plate is a sign you haven’t mastered the subtle art of plating — a crime that can get you exiled. That’s why when the French feel overwhelmed, they’ll tell you:

J’ai du pain sur la planche (I have bread on the cutting board).

All that baguette we made from putting our hands in the dough isn’t going to cut itself!

Who could possibly cut this much baguette in under 35 hours?! Photo by Sergio Arze on Unsplash

3. Pull the wool over their eyes

You got hoodwinked and you didn’t see it coming. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us, even the French. Except that in the world capital of fashion, wool is so passé.

Take advantage of a French person and they won’t be thinking of fabric of any kind. They’ll go back to their happy place and tell you they got:

Roulé dans la farine (rolled in flour).

Good thing they didn’t get baked, otherwise it’s the scammer who would have had a lot of bread on their cutting board.

4. Worth squat

Nothing, nada, zilch. However hard you try, your partner won’t give you a sliver of the attention you deserve.

Believe it or not, in the country of love, neglect happens too. But rather than compare the feeling to a common exercise position, the French prefer to use a metaphor that’s closer to home. Their national currency, in a sense. No, not the euro, non Monsieur. If you’re worthless, you:

Comptes pour du beurre (are worth butter).

In a way, the French are more generous than English speakers, because you and I both know we’d take butter over squats any day.

5. Have your cake and eat it too

What could be better than eating a cake, then having that same cake left over to eat the next day? Sounds like paradise!

The French beg to differ. Once a French person eats their cake, they’re happy, they’re ready to move on. Why would you want more of the same cake? Learn to love and let go! That’s why the French would rather:

Avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre (have the butter and the money that butter costs).

Now that’s paradise. Think of all the dishes you can make with that butter, especially now that you have cash left over to get the other ingredients you need!

Strange that they also seem to think butter is worthless…

What happens when it’s the butter that gets rolled in the flour? Photo by Ryu Orn on Unsplash

6. Living it up

All that sleeve rolling and cake eating will have you living your best life. Live it up while it lasts.

But how exactly does one enjoy life to the fullest? The French won’t do anything unless you tell them exactly what you mean. They probably won’t do it then either, but at least you’ll have tried. When the French are living the high life, they:

Mets du beurre dans les épinards (put butter in the spinach).

Nothing says luxury like greasing up those vegetables! You may be noticing a recurring theme, but I promise this is the last butter entry.

7. Not out of the woods

You’ve gone so far, you’re almost there, but not quite yet. Despite everything you’ve been through, there’s still danger nearby. The woods are not safe.

The French understand, except they got up a bit late and haven’t quite made it to the woods yet. They’re a few steps behind, because as it turns out, they:

Ne sont pas sortis de l’auberge (haven’t left the inn).

To be fair, the inn can be a dangerous place too. The baguettes are stale, the wine is sub-par, and imagine the horror on a French person’s face if breakfast toast is served not with butter, but with margarine!

Everyone knows you’re in trouble if the inn itself isn’t out of the woods. Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

8. Set in stone

There are things in life that are not subject to debate. Ironclad rules by which all must abide. To never forget, humanity has since biblical times set its most important edicts in stone. If it’s good enough for Moses, it’s good enough for the rest of us, right?

Not the French. They have standards. In our modern era of luxury and comfort, what kind of plebeian would go out looking for stones? In France, to never forget an important rule, you make sure it’s:

Gravé dans le marbre (engraved in marble)

Preferably Italian marble, so it’ll go well with the kitchen tiles. You’ll definitely remember something if you’re forced to look at it every time you enjoy a bowl of buttered spinach!

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