10 animal-related French idioms you need to know to horse around with the language

Learning French is a full-time occupation, despite how troubling it is that no one is paying for us to do so.

There are slang words and curse words, grammar and conjugations and a lot of funny little noises to master. To sound like an authentic French speaker, you’ll also need to learn a handful of idioms, namely those related to animals.

For centuries, animals have been key players in many French idioms and expressions. Some of these beastly expressions are bound to confound in the early stages of learning the language.

Today, we pay tribute to the animal kingdom with a list of 10 French idioms featuring animals. You’ll go wild for them, or wild as a domesticated ostrich in Nantes, as the saying goes. 

Travailler comme un chien 

Our beloved canines haven’t always had it easy. For centuries, dogs were only used on farms to keep an eye on cattle or to watch private properties from sun-up to sun-down. The French expression travailler comme un chien (and its English equivalent “to work like a dog”) refers to someone who is doing work for little to no pay, or doing thankless tiring work. 

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, one that we can all agree.

Example: “J’ai travaillé comme un chien ces derniers temps, j’ai besoin de vacances !”

Translation: “I’ve been working like a dog these past few weeks, I need to take some time off.”

Être têtu comme un âne

First used in the 19th century, the French idiomatic expression être têtu comme un âne literally translates as “to be stubborn as a donkey” and refers to the animal’s obstinate nature. English speakers will use the equivalent expression “to be stubborn as a mule”.

Example: “Je t’ai dit de ne pas sauter dans les flaques d’eau, tu es vraiment têtu comme un âne !”

Translation: “I told you not to jump in the puddles, you’re as stubborn as a mule!”

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Avoir une mémoire d’éléphant

If you’re anything like us, your brain is gruyere at this point – unless you’ve been using an innovative memory-based learning system online, you’ve probably forgotten a ton of stuff that you can barely remember. The French have an expression for the privileged few that do remember things well: avoir une mémoire d’éléphant, literally “to have an elephant’s memory”. Despite the long distance they travel, every year, elephants are able to remember the precise location of watering holes. They are also able to recognize human beings and people who have mistreated them, even decades later.

The expression avoir une mémoire d’éléphant describes people who have an extraordinary memory. English speakers use a similar idiom “an elephant never forgets”.

Example: “Gauthier a une vraie mémoire d’éléphant : il se souvient de toutes les dates de naissance de ses amis !

Translation: “Gauthier has an elephant’s memory: he remembers all of his friends’ birthdays!” Either that or he’s found the primary use for Facebook.

Prendre le taureau par les cornes

Popularized in the 17th century, the expression prendre le taureau par les cornes is a reference to the Twelve Labors of Heracles from Greek mythology. During his seventh labor, Heracles sailed to Crete and wrestled the King’s raging bull by grabbing it by the horns. Today, French people use prendre le taureau par les cornes (“to grab the bull by its horns”) to describe confronting a challenge directly or confidently.

Example: “Il a pris le taureau par les cornes et a fini par traiter ses sept cents mails en attente.

Translation: “He took the bull by the horns and managed to sort out his 700 emails.”

Popular belief and fairy tales have always depicted wolves as being evil and manipulative creatures. Apparently we can add “hungry” to the list too. First used in the 17th century under manger comme un loup (“to eat like a wolf”), avoir une faim de loup (“to have a wolf’s appetite”) helps describe someone who is ravenous and likely to eat obscene amounts of food. English speakers might know the expression “hungry like a wolf” or even the surprising “I could eat a horse”

Example: “J’ai commandé un deuxième dessert au restaurant, j’avais une faim de loup !

Translation: “I ordered two desserts at the restaurant, I could have eaten a horse!”

Oh, la vache !

Similar to the English expression “holy cow!”, oh la vache ! is commonly used in French to express disappointment or surprise. Supposedly, the interjection goes back to the 17th century, when farmers would bring their cows into town to show off how fresh their milk was. Villagers would therefore cry out la vache ! as a mark of surprise and admiration.

Example: “La vache ! Il pleut tellement que je suis trempé !

Translation: “Holy cow! It’s pouring so hard I’m soaked!”

Manger comme un cochon

It would seem some idioms don’t do our animals justice. While wolves are considered greedy, pigs are often seen as being dirty, mostly because they love to roll around in the mud. Add an oink or two and you get the expression manger comme un cochon (“to eat like a pig”) 

Did you know? Mud baths help pigs cool down their body temperature and scrap off parasites such as lice and ticks.

Example: “Tu as de la confiture partout sur ton pull et il y en a même par terre ! Tu manges vraiment comme un cochon.”

Translation: “You’ve got jam all over your sweater, there’s even some on the floor! You really do eat like a pig.”

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Être malin comme un singe

This next idiom is bananas. In French, être malin comme un singe (“to be as clever as a monkey”) is used to refer to an ingenious or cunning person. The idiom is said to originate in the Middle Ages when monkeys were thought to be descendants of the devil. Even today, these animals are considered tricksters, using their intelligence to outplay both people and animals.

Example: “Cet enfant est malin comme un singe, il trouve toujours une astuce pour avoir les jouets qu’il veut.”

Translation: “This child is as clever as a monkey. He always finds a way to get the toys he wants.”

If you’ve had just about enough of this monkey business, add these useful French proverbs to your bag.

Quand les poules auront des dents 

In the 18th century, French people would use the expression quand les poules pisseront (“when hens piss”) to indicate a situation that is unlikely to happen. Today, the expression quand les poules auront des dents (“when hens have teeth”) is more commonly used, and is fairly similar to our English equivalent “when pigs fly”.

Did you know? Our Spanish counterparts use the idiom “when frogs grow hair” whilst our German-speakers use “when fish fly”.

Exemple : “Je me mettrai à la couture quand les poules auront des dents !

Translation: “I’ll learn how to sew when pigs fly!”

Avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge

We end this list with a fishy expression. According to an urban myth, fish are unable to retain information for more than 9 seconds. French native speakers commonly use the idiom avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge (“to have a goldfish’s memory”) which helps describe somebody who has a tendency to forget things. In English, we use the same idiom, or a variant like “to have a memory like a goldfish”.

Example: Juliette a déjà oublié ce que la maîtresse lui a expliqué il y a cinq minutes, elle a vraiment une mémoire de poisson rouge !

Translation: “Juliette has already forgotten what the teacher explained to her five minutes ago. She really has a memory like a goldfish.”

Did you know? A 1990s study has shown that fish can actually remember specific events – spanning weeks, months, sometimes years. Normalize goldfish cognitive ability.

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