Every language has its own expressions, sayings, or idioms to share the same idea with different words. The English and French languages use very different images, but where do they come from, and how are they translated?
Learning a language can be tricky, but the worst moment is when you hear a sentence where you can understand all the words, but it still doesn’t make sense. “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” your friend tells you, but you don’t have any cat and if one was in a bag, you would want to let it out.
“To let the cat out of the bag” is an idiom, which uses an image to convey an idea. Here, your friend is asking you not to reveal a secret, but if you don’t know, you might just be lost. Especially if you’re a French native speaker, and in your language you’re used to hearing the sentence “découvrir le pot aux roses” (discover the rose pot) to say more or less the same thing.
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Idioms – sayings, expressions, no matter what you call them – are one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. This is especially the case, when your native language has other expressions, other images, for the same idea. I decided to compare French and English idioms, to try to understand the differences and origins of these fixed sentences.
It’s raining cats and dogs / il pleut des cordes (it’s raining ropes)
This is probably the first idiom French speakers would understand when they start to learn English, not because it makes sense, but only because they find it so weird that it sticks to the mind.
When it’s raining, English speakers can say “it’s raining cats and dogs”, while French speakers would say “il pleut des cordes” (it’s raining ropes). The image in French makes sense because when it’s raining, the water falls from the roof a certain way and it can look like ropes are falling. But why cats and dogs?
Even if the rain of animals is a real meteorological phenomenon, it is not what the saying is about. However, finding where this expression truly comes from is a difficult task. Wikipedia gives us various possibilities: dead animals on the street being washed away by heavy rain, a variant of another language’s expression, a transformation of a foreign word… It’s like nobody really knows.
In French, “il pleut des cordes” would be the most common way to say it, but not the only one. You can also hear “il pleut comme vache qui pisse” (it’s raining like a peeing cow”) and “il pleut des seaux” (it’s raining buckets), which are more or less easy to imagine.
Speak of the devil / Parler du loup (speak of the wolf)
This saying means that someone unexpected is arriving when you’re talking about them. It is traditionally more about someone showing up when you criticize them, because of the negative image of either the devil or the wolf, but today it can be used in a positive situation.
There is a longer version for both expressions, but people usually don’t need to use the complete sentence to give the image they want to communicate. In English it is “speak of the devil and he doth appear” when in French it’s “quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue / il montre sa queue” (when you speak of the wolf, you see his tail / he shows his tail).
In both languages, these expressions come from the past, with the English one being traced back to the 16th century and the French one to the 15th century. However, especially for the wolf mention, it is even older than that: in Latin, people were saying “lupus in fabula” (the wolf in the conversation) to share the same idea.
Beat around the bush / Tourner autour du pot (turn around the pot)
The image is almost the same and describes someone discussing a topic in a deliberately vague way. This is done for various reasons, but mostly because it is not in their favour, it is unpleasant, or because they want to ask for something without actually asking for it directly. Both languages talk about turning “around” something. It seems like English speakers prefer to beat around a bush, while French people prefer a pot. It makes sense!
Not really, but why does turning around something mean avoiding a topic? For the pot, it might come from the fact that when food was rare, people wouldn’t turn around the pot before eating, so doing it would mean something is wrong. For the bush, it seems to be related to hunting.
When pigs fly / Quand les poules auront des dents (when hens have teeth)
This saying has a version in almost every language, existing as various situations that are impossible to imagine in the real world, with the intention of describing the impossibility of a situation. In English, you have probably heard “when hell freezes over” to share the same idea.
Pigs will never fly, at least not without some scientific or divine intervention, and hens will never have teeth except if they mutate, and then it might become a very difficult world for humanity to live in. None of these situations are expected in the near future, so if your friend tells you that you might become president when pigs fly, you just know that they don’t really see you as presidential material.
Often used in an ironic way, “when pigs fly” appeared as recently as the 17th century under the form “pigs might/may fly”. “Quand les poules auront des dents” could be found in another form, “quand les poules pisseront” (when hens pee) in the 19th century. French people seem to have a problem with animals peeing.
To talk about something that’s possible but quite infrequent, you can use the term “once in a blue moon” in English, which has a weird equivalent in French: “tous les 36 du mois” (every 36th of the moth). Knowing that absolutely no month has 36 days, it might be closer to impossible than infrequent.
To add insult to injury / Jeter de l’huile sur le feu (throw oil on fire)
The basic question would be: how to make a situation worse than it already is? When you have various answers to this question, you can create your own saying. People could have said “grabbing another drink when you know your previous one should have been your last” or “purposely mentioning a lie you put on our CV during a job interview” but it would have been less poetic.
Adding insult to an injury, if you take the words for what they are, is never a good idea. And if you throw oil on a fire when you want to put it out, you’re doing everything wrong. Fun fact, throwing water on a fire caused by oil isn’t a good idea either, but it’s not the point. These two expressions can be used when someone is aggravating a situation by doing something more that should have been avoided.
“To add insult to an injury” was reported in English in the 1700s, but was already found in the words of a Roman writer. In French, it also finds its origins in literature with Madame de Sévigné in the 17thcentury.
Idioms will remain a mystery for most of us, with their unclear origins. Who thought about putting this idea with these words, and why did this phrasing become common? We will probably never know, but at least now you know what people are saying when they say these five expressions, both in French and in English. Did you know about them and their translations? Let us know in the comment section!