There are French proverbs or sayings, and then there are French phrases and idioms. The difference is subtle, but they are all forms of expression that can throw French learners for a loop, especially when they suddenly appear in a conversation with little or no introduction.
Still, they are a great way to illustrate a point or to get you some brownie points and sound more fluent. We have selected some of the best French proverbs and have broken down their meaning so you can put your best foot forward and impress with a dash of humor the next time you say bonjour.
Ce n’est pas la mer à boire
Drinking seawater? Maybe famous French poet Jean de La Fontaine was in need of some hydration when he wrote “tout cela, c’est la mer à boire” in his tale Les deux chiens et l’âne mort – or maybe he was just trying to make a point. Little did he know that his idiom would become the inspiration for this modern-day French proverb that literally translates as “it’s not the sea to drink”. Pretty much everyone can agree that drinking the sea is a Herculean task, which is why the French use this proverb to say something is no big deal or not difficult.
L’habit ne fait pas le moine
You’ve probably heard of the Trojan horse built to sneak into the city of Troy, but have you heard of François Grimaldi? During the Genoese wars of 1297, François Grimaldi donned the garb of a Franciscan friar to enter the castle of Monaco and captured the Rock of Monaco for the Guelphs. He held the citadel for four years before he was eventually chased out. “The clothing doesn’t make the monk”, as the proverb goes, is a useful reminder that appearances can be deceiving, much like the English proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
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La nuit porte conseil
Got a big decision to make? Sleep on it. This common French saying recommends sleeping on any big problem in the hopes of getting a new perspective on the issue at hand and literally translates to “the night brings advice.”
Chacun voit midi à sa porte
The literal translation of this saying “everyone sees noon at their door” might leave you scratching your head. This proverb is a metaphor – much like many proverbs – and implies that everyone has a different perspective on an issue (and usually their own problems and concerns take center stage).
Although not used much today, the saying dates back to the days when time was told using a sundial, which wasn’t as accurate as the watches, clocks and cell phones we have today. Time was relative and when the sun was at its zenith, not all sundials marked the hour at noon on the dot. Today, we can make more sense of the saying: when a person stepped out of their house and looked at their sundial around noon, they would see noon when their neighbor might see a quarter to noon. Back in the day, everyone saw noon at their door…
Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences
Don’t trust appearances or appearances aren’t always what they seem is what this translation of an Oscar Wilde quote turned proverb wants to say. The next time you feel compelled to judge a book by its cover, think again!
Après la pluie, le beau temps
Also the title of a book by the Comtesse de Ségur published in 1871, this popular French proverb is a lesson in looking on the bright side of things. When native French speakers say “after the rain comes good weather”, they mean that hard times don’t last forever. In English, we would use the expression “there’s always light at the end of the tunnel” or “April showers bring May flowers”.
Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid
Little by little, the bird makes its nest. Finally, a common French proverb that mentions animals and helps remind us that with time and perseverance, we can all achieve our dreams. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” as they say.
In English, one would use the poetic expression “great oaks from little acorns grow”.
On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne
If there’s one proverb English should definitely think of stealing from the French language, on ne change pas une équipe qui gagne is definitely the one. After all, who would change a winning team? In any case, it seems like sage advice for any team effort. Anything that brings comfort, pleasure or success is best left to be and not thrown into question.”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Il vaut mieux être seul que mal accompagné
This common French proverb dates back to the 15th century and literally translates to “it’s better to be alone than in bad company.” The expression was first used by French poet Pierre Gringore and reminds us that it isn’t worth seeking company at all costs.
Qui ne risque rien n’a rien
“The person who risks nothing, gets nothing”. Life isn’t easy and this French saying encourages us to get out there and start taking some risks. There’s no time like the present to live life to the fullest! Much like the English expression “no pain, no gain”, at least if you do fail, it’s better to have done so while daring greatly.
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