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Pardon? - Our four- legged friends

Pardon? - Our four- legged friends

Our language expert Emma-Jane Lee explores how our four-legged friends influence our expressions on both sides of the Channel… 


Some days are harder than others. You can work like a dog and end up in the dog house anyway. You know you start with the best intentions when it’s a dog and pony show, but it sometimes ends up as a dog’s breakfast, not the cat’s pyjamas. Like English, the French language is filled with expressions involving our two favourite companion animals. 

Some things work well in both languages. You could fight like cat and dog in English and find yourself comme chat et chien in French. But other things don’t translate quite so well. One of my favourite French expressions is nom d’un chien! “Name of a dog!” isn’t something most people would say to express frustration or irritation. It’s a little old-fashioned now that curse words are everywhere, but I think that’s part of its charm. “Oh sugar!” would probably be its closest English translation. I guess it’s a similar kind of minced oath.

If you’re frustrated and irritated, it might well put you in a terrible mood. In France, you might say être d’une humeur de chien. You’re in a dog mood. You might even be looking at someone like a pot dog - se regarder en chiens de faïence. This goes back to the fashion for pot dogs that would sit either side of the fireplace, staring at each other with hostility and determination in total silence. You might be giving each other daggers in English.

You may also look at someone like this if they arrive like a dog to a game of skittles. In French arriver comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles means to arrive a little like a bull in a china shop, upsetting the apple cart.


Another expression we have in English with apples is ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, or in other words, children often take after their parents. In French, it is another canine expression: les chiens ne font pas des chats. Dogs don’t make cats.

One expression we have in English, “a cat can look at a king” is “a dog can look at a bishop” in French - un chien regarde bien un évêque. Both mean that the average person can look at anyone they choose to. And it’s not the only expression where the English have an expression with one animal and the French have opted for the other. We might make a dog’s breakfast (or even a pig’s ear) out of something where the French will make de la bouillie pour les chats. Gruel for cats. We don’t wake sleeping dogs, and in France, they let sleeping cats lie. Il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort.

Sometimes, the expressions are very different. In England, we might have fingers in other pies, or other fish to fry, but the French will have other cats to whip: avoir d’autres chats à fouetter. But if it’s nothing to make a fuss about, we might say il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat. There’s nothing to whip a cat for.

If we have a frog in our throat, the French have un chat dans la gorge. The cat might have our tongue, but in French we will definitely have given our tongue away to the cat, donner sa langue au chat. And if we give our tongue to the cat, it doesn’t mean we are shy or have nothing to say. It means we are throwing in the towel and giving up.

If there’s nobody about, the French will say that there isn’t a cat - il n’y a pas un chat. And if we call a spade a spade, the French will call a cat a cat, appeler un chat un chat.

I think the French are very fussy about their handwriting. If you write like a cat, écrire comme un chat, you don’t write very well at all. You can also be accused of writing like a pig in French and having handwriting like flies’ feet. I guess it’s little different than having chicken-scratch handwriting or spidery handwriting.

Of course, there are plenty of expressions that are exactly the same, such as “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” which is quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent.

Hopefully, these expressions will help you make your way around French and you’ll find that you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.


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