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Pardon? - Best foot forward

Pardon? - Best foot forward

Our language expert Emma-Jane Lee puts her best foot forward as she shares more of her favourite French expressions… 


I hope I don’t find you dead on your feet or dragging your heels. Hopefully you’re keen to put a toe in the water, and I hope that we don’t get off on the wrong foot as I’ve got some French expressions to keep you on your toes. Like English, French is full of useful, interesting and even curious expressions using feet and paws. 

Not unlike la bouche, the mouth of a person, and la gueule, the mouth of certain animals, le pied and la patte are also distinct and separate in French. Le pied - the foot - is just more elegant than la patte - be it paw, claw or hoof. And that’s not very elegant at all. Le pied has long since been a symbol of stupidity, and saying someone is ‘as stupid as their feet’, bête comme ses pieds, tells you just how the feet are considered in France. They’re such a long way from the brain, after all.

In fact, if you are the foot of a bird, that’s even worse. Faire le pied de grue means literally ‘to do the crane’s foot’. It’s not some kind of strange dance. Whilst this might not seem to make any sense when you consider the literal translation, the expression really means to hang about. Apparently, it’s a thing cranes do. It makes me think of people loitering about with no purpose.

Feet can spoil the whole tone of your day, too. You might very well get up on the wrong side of the bed in English-speaking countries, but here, you will se lever du pied gauche. Get up on the left foot. Like in England, the left still has many negative connotations. You can still put your best foot forward though if you partir du bon pied.

In the world of work, there are two fairly similar expressions meaning totally different things. Mettre sur pied means ‘to put on its feet’, to start something off, and is often used to mean a business start up, mise sur pied. However, a layoff is la mise à pied. Or putting someone to their feet. Mettre à pied means to suspend someone. A couple of small words’ difference and you’ve got the difference between a business start-up, a helping hand to get you on your feet, and being sent to the unemployment office. Small word, big difference!


Another expression with mettre is mettre au pied du mur which is the equivalent of the English ‘to put someone’s back up against the wall.’ You’ve still got the wall, but this time it’s the feet, not the back, that is up against it.

One of my favourite English expressions is ‘to ride roughshod over’. In French, you’d say fouler au pied - to trample by foot. Riding roughshod does seem much more aggressive than being trampled on, but if I want to override someone’s decision, it’s fouler aux pieds.

Now for les pattes. The first thing you might notice in France is that as you grow old, you don’t get crow’s feet, but geese feet, les pattes d’oie. Maybe their wrinkles are more pronounced in France? Maybe if you have such wrinkles, you might remember another patte - trousers with les pattes d’éléphant - bell-bottomed trousers.

It’s not just geese and elephants who have interesting feet. Duck’s feet are also part of an unusual expression: ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard. That doesn’t break three feet on a duck. If you’re wondering what it means, its English equivalent is that it’s nothing to write home about. Obviously, there are not many ducks with three feet, so it means it’s nothing extraordinary or noteworthy. If you break the third leg of a duck - now that obviously would be something to write home about!

Watch out for anyone who offers you velvet paws, faire patte de velours. Like a cat who might offer you a velvet, padded paw, there are claws underneath. This expression relates to anyone who smiles like the innocent flower yet is the serpent under it, to misquote ‘Macbeth’. As sweet as sugar on the surface and as sour as vinegar underneath. You may even realise that their words are a vicious and cruel attack, un coup de patte. A metaphorical paw of a bear, maybe. If they offer to graisse la patte, they’re offering to grease your palm - not much better!

As you can see, there are many expressions using feet and paws. Maybe these ones will help you find your feet with French. Maybe they’ll help you next time you have to think on your feet.



Emma is a jack-of-all-language-trades, writing English textbooks, translating, marking exam scripts and teaching languages. She lives near La Rochefoucauld with her growing menagerie. See