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Apples, Onions, Chicken Teeth, and Other French Idioms

Updated: Feb 4

Pommes (Apples)

Perhaps the most recognizable French idiom to include the juicy red fruit is tomber dans les pommes. Literally, the phrase means “to fall in the apples.” However, the French use this idiom as an expression meaning “to faint.” The most likely origin of this expression comes from the older phrase se pâmer, which was transformed into pommes. In Québec, another expression is used to describe fainting: faire l’étoile de mer. Word-for-word, the expression would mean “to do the starfish” but has become a creative way to express the action of fainting.

Another creative use of apples in the French language is in relation to height. Haut comme trois pommes means “three apples high.” In conversation, it is often used to describe a child’s height (current or past), like the English “knee-high to a grasshopper.” Other variations on this expression also reference height (but all keep the base unit of three apples!). For example, Grand comme trois pommes à genoux. This roughly translates to “Large, like three apples to the knee,” meaning that the person is fairly tall in stature. While the exact origins for this idiom are unknown, one of the most cited early uses is from the creation of The Smurfs (originally a set of French characters titled les Schtroumpfs and designed by Peyo, a Belgian artist). The artist describes the Smurfs as haut comme trois pommes. 

Other Food-Based Idioms

Fromage (cheese) is perhaps one of the most iconic hallmarks of France. Naturally, the dairy product had to make an appearance in at least one idiom! En faire tout un fromage is a French expression used to tell someone they are overreacting to a small deal. Literally meaning, “to make a whole cheese,” the expression is believed to derive from the fact that while milk is easy to produce, cheesemaking is a complex and difficult process. As such, if someone is making a big deal out of something, they are acting as if they are making a whole wheel of cheese, when they are, in fact, just making milk. 

In true French tradition, other types of food (in this case, onions) are also a topic of some idioms. C’est pas tes oignons literally translates to “these are not your onions.” In conversation, however, it is used similarly to “It’s none of your business” in English. This idiom is most often used between close acquaintances in a casual manner. Onions are often linked to idioms dealing with business (affaires), so many assume their close-ish pronunciation lent itself well to some creative idioms. 

Lightning and Chicken Teeth

Another creative French expression follows along the lines of the English “when pigs fly.” The French chose to instead use hens with the expression: Quand les poules auront des dents. The literal translation is “When hens will have teeth,” and is used to mean something like “That will never happen.” Just like in English, this idiom is a fun way to poke at an impossible situation. 

Amour (Love) is also a common subject of idioms. The most notable is un coup de foudre. Literally, the meaning would translate to “a lightning strike,” which is apt to explain the idiom’s hidden meaning: love at first sight. The origins of this expression are, quite simply, the electric feeling often associated with a new-found love. 


For more fun idioms and French expressions, look here

Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence, College Intern

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