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Pardon? - French expressions featuring "tête"

Pardon? - French expressions featuring "tête"

Emma-Jane Lee, our language expert, heads out to guide us through a new selection of  French expressions...


Perhaps you are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to languages. At worst you might be banging your head against a brick wall or running round like a headless chicken when language rears its ugly head. If you’re lucky, you can pick up French standing on your head.

The head is possibly the most used body part when it comes to expressions in English, and it is little different in French. You might plough marbles in your head, be pig-headed, have the head of a linnet or even have a head like a pickaxe. And who knows what head-spade might involve?
Foncer bille en tête means to do something audaciously, without hesitation, without thinking, diving in, bulldozing ahead, and doesn’t really have anything to do with having a marble in the head. La bille itself can be a slang word for the head, so bille en tête can suggest ‘head in head’. En tête means ‘at the front’ or ‘leading the way’ like our expression in English ‘heading up’. As foncer can mean ‘to plough into’, the expression suggests ploughing into something head first.

Being stubborn gives rise to many expressions involving la tête, not least têtu meaning ‘stubborn’. Une tête de pioche is one example, meaning pickaxe-headed. Of course, pickaxes have to break up stones and so it’s remarkably strong and unbending. Perhaps this is the reason we might call a stubborn person a pickaxe-head in French.

Similarly, une tête de cochon or pig-headed is an expression we’d use to show how stubborn or têtu somebody was, especially if they are being pointlessly or needlessly awkward. You might also say they had a tête de mule or that they are mule-headed if they are particularly stubborn, similar to the expression we use in English. Pigs and mules are obviously very stubborn creatures.

You can also have a head like a bird as well as a head like an animal in French. Tête de linotte means linnet-headed and we’d probably say ‘bird-brained’ or ‘scatterbrained’, or even call someone a flibbertigibbet. I have no idea if linnets are particularly scatterbrained or forgetful though. In days gone by, if a mule was stubborn, a linnet or starling was not particularly well-endowed in the brain department.

Acting a little thoughtlessly and being stubborn aren’t the only expressions involving personality traits. If you faire la tête it means you are sulking. Literally translated it means ‘to do the head’. Though if you faire une tête d’enterrement or ‘make a funeral face’, you look down in the dumps or depressed, like you would at a funeral. And the head can be a symbol of anger as well as sulking and looking sad. If something really gets on your nerves, you could say ça me prend la tête which means ‘that takes my head’. We might say ‘that makes me lose my head’ in English, or lose my temper.


In England we might sleep top to tail and in France they would be head-spade. Tête-bêche might literally mean head-spade but it refers to being placed upside down and back to front. You can also find this expression in philately where it is used to describe two stamps placed next to each other: one the right way up and one upside down. It’s also used in printing for a two-for-one book where one book is printed one way and then the other is printed upside down and back to front. You might find two-for-one publicity for local shops and businesses like this too.

Having your nose to the grindstone is a popular expression in England for working so hard that you are unable to extract your nose from whatever it is you are doing. In France, we might say avoir la tête dans le guidon or ‘having the head in the handlebars.’ Le guidon can also be the sight on a canon, so more likely it relates to being extremely focused and having a target in sight. Still, it’s nice to think of hard workers like a team of Tour de France cyclists with their heads down on the handlebars.

If something is very expensive, it might cost the eyes in the head. Coûter les yeux de la tête is more or less the same expression as costing an arm and a leg in British English. So expensive in fact, that you have to sell off body parts to get it.

And although you might not want to stuff your head with countless expressions about body parts, it’s better than burying your head in the sand!


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