How do idioms change? From where do they originate? Why do we care?

Idioms are a group of words established by language usage. For example, “beat around the bush”, “bite the bullet”,” a dime a dozen”, “it costs an arm and a leg” are pretty common for the older set! Some more modern English idioms would be: “ethnic cleansing”; “hit the books”;  “on the fence”; “sit tight”; “shake it off”; “shape up”; “old school”; “think outside the box”.

Idioms are a MUST when learning a new language. These are the expressions we will use in communicating when we travel or move to a new culture. Idioms give language character. Using idioms expands the ability to communicate.

As a history enthusiast, I love to read idioms from different time periods and languages. These phrases tell us much about a culture and thought processes.

The text I am referencing for this blog is from my library. It is R. de Blanchaud’s Progressive French Idioms from Heath’s Modern Language Series. This textbook was published in 1910 at the Central School in Aberdeen, Scotland.

There are several things that fascinate me concerning this book of “commonly used idioms in France”. First, this book of common usage of the French language at the turn of the century was written by an Assistant Master from Aberdeen [ I could not find any other biographical information on de Blanchaud. This is a French surname with origins from Burgundy, France. It appears that he had great command of the French language whether he was native or not!]

Secondly, this book of idioms was published prior to the first World War, where one in every twenty French soldiers was killed. Therefore, this gives a new perspective of French language at this time when the country was divided and most spoke in their regional dialect. How did these idioms change or become obsolete following the war?

As a Linguist, I understand that language courses are designed to familiarize French language learners of the Francophone cultures, including France.  Hymes (1971) observed that this “communicative competence involves knowing not only the language code but also what to say to whom and how to say it appropriately in any given situation” (254). Following the War, many Americans made their way to France, particularly Paris. Some chose to live there and write famous novels!  [see Hemingway post

However, most language learners did not have this luxury. So, these students could now learn the “common idioms” of French speakers for their exams and go on their way to the next FLL classroom.

Next, one thing I love about old textbooks is the story they tell about their former owners from the notations and marginalia. This particular textbook was owned by Paul F. Uaka from Donaldson School. He wrote the date Sept. 11, 1924 on the front page under his name. He wrote the name “Susie” right under the date!? Paul also scratched out the “M” in Idioms from the title and replaced it with a “T”. Quite the card!

Finally, the most important aspect of this book; the idioms themselves. Which of these are still used in the vernacular today?

I have chosen some of my favorite idioms from this text for this blog. The word-for-word, or literal translation follows. I’ve added the English equivalent idiom to most (in which I could decipher!)

Grammatical Idioms: These are technically just grammatical sentences. This one stood out :

  • Il sait l’allemand et le français= He knows German and French. (In 1910, this was the general rule on the German border of Alsace, Loraine, etc. This will be mandatory in northern France during the next World War.)

Elementary Idioms  French is very literal!

  • Une porte à deux battants = A door in 2 clappings ? beatings? ( Folding doors: I guess this idea is when the doors fold, they clap together.)
  • Il fait du soliel = The sun shines. (Il fait always begins idioms of weather ; il fait beau– it is nice outside)
  • N’importe quoi = It is not what is important. (Anything)
  • La tête me tourney= The head turns me (I feel happy) Reflexive verbs always begin with a definite article + noun.
  • Le pied m’a manqué =The foot has missed me. ( My foot slipped).

Advanced Idioms:

  • il ne bat plus que d’une aile= It only flaps with one wing (He’s on his last leg)
  • Ils ont amené leur pavillon =They brought their flag (best game ?)
  • Filer à l’anglaise =Run to the English (take French leave)
  • Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette = I am not in my seat (I am out of sorts)
  • Il m’est avis qu’il ne dit pas tout= It is my opinion that he not say everything!!!
  • Il est du bois dont on fait les flûtes= It is from wood that one makes flutes (I had to look this one up: “The expression means that a shy man seeks to adopt the dominant opinion by sheltering behind a judgment and as such it is impossible to blame him for anything”)
  • Ce sont deux têtes dans un bonnet = They are two heads in one bonnet (two peas in a pod).
  • Faire la bouche en cœur = Mouth to heart (pucker up or purse one’s lips)


  • Embrasser= to Kiss/ Embraser= to set on fire (Don’t forget the double “s”!)
  • Il est gras= He is fat. C’est un fat=  He is a fop (a dandy).
  • C’est du pathos= It is an affected pathos, bombast ! / Le pathétique de sa péroraison=The pathos of his peroration (or concluding part of a speech intended to inspire enthusiasm)

Some “common” similes:

  • Boire à tire la Rigault= To drink a taffy Rigault. (To drink like a fish?)
  • Elle est triste commue un bonnet de nuit = She is sad as a nightcap. ( She is as dull as ditch-water.)
  • Elle jase comme un pie borgne= She chatters like a magpie.
  • Il tombait des hallebardes= It rained halberds. A halberd is a two-handed pole weapon that came to prominent use during the 14th and 15th centuries. ( This would be equivalent to “it rained cats and dogs” or “torrential rainfall”.)
  • Il est grossier comme du pain d’orge= He is as coarse as « hopsack », a light-weight wool. (He has a cold heart)

Some common proverbs:

  • L’appétit vient en mangeant= Appetite comes with eating (the more you have, the more you want).
  • À bon chat, bon rat= A good cat, a good rat (a Roland for an Oliver)
  • Les petits ruisseaux font les grand rivières = Small streams make big rivers. (Many a mickle makes a muckle !)
  • Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort= Do not wake the cat who sleeps (We would say “let sleeping dogs lie”)
  • On ne saurait contenter tout le mode et son père= One cannot satisfy everyone AND their father. (A happy wife, a happy life !)
  • Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien= The best is the enemy of good. (Leave well enough alone)
  • Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait= If youth knew, if the old could. (If the young only knew; if the old only could.)

So what can we learn about pre-war French culture from this list? To me, it is pretty common to our own pre-war culture.  I learned about a halberd, that French thought favorably of the English and Germans, that a father’s place of importance outranked that of a mother or wife, and wearing a bonnet with your bestie can be crowded but also beneficial! Most importantly, it is a reminder of the simpler life of the French before their who world turned upside down.

Now to find a French idiom text published post WWII to compare and contrast!!

Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (