French Proverbs and How to Use Them
A proverb is a brief phrase used to express some wisdom or advice, often through poésie – poetic flair, imagerie – imagery or rime – rhyme.
First up, “c’est la vie”.
Everyone knows this infamous proverb, but have you ever stopped to think about what it actually means?
Literally translated, it means this is the life, but the meaning is much closer to, that’s life. The beauty of this expression is that it doesn’t have either a positive or negative connotation, so it can be used in *such* a wide variety of situations.
Why Learn French Proverbs?
Learning some proverbs is a great way to get a unique insight into French culture, and sometimes history, while fine tuning your language skills. “C’est la vie” reflects the laissez faire attitude of the French, defined by the dictionary as, a policy of non interference, or a live and let live attitude. Both of these phrases are so widely used that they’ve even been widely adopted in English.
I can remember feeling perplexed when, while in France, a French colleague tut tutted at my open toe shoes in April, muttering:
“En avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil.“
“In April, don’t remove a thread (of clothing).”
Have you heard this popular French proverb?
A possible match in English is the old adage, “April showers bring May flowers,” though in French, it’s a reference to how *unreliable* warm weather is in April, whereas, the English expression is all about your odds of getting caught in the rain.
While I’ve always been pretty hot blooded, and after living in Scotland for over ten years, I’d say that I’m fairly hardy compared to the Toulousains – residents of Toulouse down in la ville rose – Toulouse, often known as the pink city, who only get a sprinkling of snow come décembre, I actually had a foot injury, so that was the reason behind my summery choice of chaussure – shoe.
Like any good French beginner, I endeavoured to start a quick repartie – repartee, but instead of thinking up a quick witted explanation, I stammered, turning over phrases in my head and struggling to get my words out.
French is such an ornate, descriptive language, that even just writing this anecdote, two other *must have* expressions have sprung to mind.
Have you come across either of the following?
Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler.
Literally, you must turn your tongue around in your mouth seven times before speaking a.k.a. think before you speak! This one sounds pretty long winded to me!
Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier
Literally, to have the mind of the staircase, or staircase wit. Describes the feeling when you think of the perfect comeback, but it’s too late (you’ve left the room, and are probably already at the bottom of the staircase by this point).
Forgetting these already? Of course you are! Language learning takes time and repeated practice. Why not try reading some French proverbs on the LingQ reader? You can translate as you go and read as many times as you need to. You can even do vocabulary activities with the different words and phrases inside proverbs, as well as the proverbs themselves. Check it out!
More French Proverbs
Il vaut mieux être seule que mal accompagnée !
It’s better to be alone, than in bad company!
This one can be hard to hear for some people, after a breakup, falling out with someone, or moving on from bad job.
So many people find it difficult to take advice these days, maybe that’s why proverbs have always proven to be so popular, as a handy way for family, friends, or general do gooders and good samaritans to have their two cents.
Qui vivra verra.
Literally translated, it means, he or she who lives, shall see. Used to express doubt or uncertainty, this is a French spin on the English, the future will tell. See if you can spot the use of the subjunctive tense, here!
You’ll notice that the vocabulary used in proverbs all revolves around life, love, happiness, the natural world, these are time honoured phrases about the simple things in life, that have been kept going for centuries.
Lastly, one of my favourites:
Impossible, n’est pas français!
Literally translated, this means, [the word] impossible, isn’t French! The phrase is interpreted as, nothing is impossible.
So, if you need a break from your grammar quiz, try looking up some popular French proverbs, and deciphering them to take away the key words, phrases and grammar points.
Try and think up dialogues in your head where you could use them. Don’t worry about feeling silly, talking to yourself is an essential part of the language learning process! Then, the next time you’re speaking to a French speaker, you can listen out for them.
There is a catch 22 here though, because unless they think you’re a seriously fluent French speaker, they’re unlikely to use some of the tricker proverbs in casual conversation, unless you mention you’ve been looking them up and want to test them out, of course!
As ever, things are always easier to understand when they’re down on paper, so don’t forget to look out for proverbs in books, and particularly newspapers, as journalists love to use language creatively with puns and wordplay, and read between the lines cultural references, especially when they’re talking about politics!
What’s your favourite French proverb? Has it got an English counterpart?
Let us know in the comments, below!
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Ella Louise Finn is a Freelance French & Spanish to Native English Translator, Proofreader, Copywriter and Transcriber, now based in Glasgow, Scotland, after spending time in Argentina and France honing her language skills.