I always slightly envied bilingual people. Those lucky bastards who grew up speaking two languages with equal fluency, like living one foot in one world and one foot in a parallel reality. However, studies show that the two linguistic systems are set so far apart in bilingual person’s mind that without special preparation bilingual people cannot really work as ’natural interpreters’. It’s like they have two trees growing in their brain, with branches of idiomatic expressions, twigs of words and leaves of meaning. But these trees are rooted on two different cliffs, with no bridge connecting them.
When you learn a second language to almost the same level as your native tongue, you are equipped with all the necessary metaphors and expressions to relate your mind in either of them. For me, some French expressions are absolutely irreplaceable, and I miss them dearly when I speak English.
1) The French don’t tell you “to mind your own business”… they tell you “to deal with your own onions” (Occupe-toi de tes oignons). The expression goes back to XX century, where ‘onion’ in slang meant ‘heel of the foot’ or ‘anus’. Either of them, you should take care of.
2) The French are not “very lucky”… they have “as much luck as a cuckold” (Avoir une chance de cocu). Ending up as a cuckold is not much of a luck. That’s why the popular belief was something along the lines: ‘Well, it can’t get much worse than being a cuckold… So from now on it’s all gonna be great’.
3) The French are not “ungrateful”… they “spit in the soup” (Cracher dans la soupe). This probably does not need much explanation. Maybe this cat.
4) The French don’t “make a fuss about something”… they “make a whole cheese about it” (En faire tout un fromage). The art of making something as exquisite and complex as cheese from something as simple as milk – perhaps a person who tends to overthink things could make a good cheese maker.
5) French men don’t “sleep around”… they “dip their biscuit” (Tremper son biscuit). Biscuit! You are probably noticing how many of these expressions have to do with food… Well, Francois Rabelais in 16th century used the words ‘tremper son pain au pot’ (soak the bread in the pot). Probably because he ran out of biscuits.
6) The French are not “big-headed”... they “fart higher than their ass is located” (Péter plus haut que son cul). This expression has been used since the middle of 17th century. We do not advise you to try to repeat this at home.
7) The French do not simply tell you to “get lost”. They suggest you go cook yourself an egg (Va te faire cuire un œuf). Because then you can try farting higher than your ass is located.
8) The French do not simply tell lies… They “tell salads” (Raconter des salades). You never know what they mixed up in those salads.
9) The French do not get annoyed with something or someone. They have “mustard coming up their nose” (La moutarde me monte au nez). I imagine having mustard up your nose is pretty annoying.
10) “To be in the west” (Etre à l’Ouest) means “to be in your own strange bubble” (or not awake enough) – perhaps a very accurate depiction of modern Western society in relation to the outside world.
11) To arrive like a hair in the soup (“Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe”) refers to absolutely irrelevant and out-of-context remarks in a conversation. Note again, the French obsession with food… and hair in it.
12) French can “have one’s ass between two chairs” (Avoir le cul entre deux chaises), or be caught between two stools.
13) If you promise to do something… never… you can say that it’ll happen “When chickens have teeth” (Quand les poules auront des dents).
14) Being bored is not quite boring in French, as we say “to make oneself shit like a dead rat” (Se faire chier comme un rat mort). On the other hand, in English, people “don’t give a rat’s ass” about things that do not interest them.
15) Finally, for the lack of interest in wild bears, the French prefer to “count one’s chickens before they are hatched” (Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué), instead of selling the bear’s skin before it’s killed.