Contribute something productive you reprobate!!

The leading English language magazine. Now covering Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, Vendée and Haute-Vienne too!

Living magazine distribution map

Pardon? Painting by numbers...

Pardon? Painting by numbers...

Emma Lee, our language expert, leaves us on cloud nine with her latest collection of French phrases…

Are you at sixes and sevens with French? Does it all feel like going back to square one every time you start? If you want my two cents’ worth, going the whole nine yards will definitely help you with your vocabulary. Stay one step ahead with some of these French expressions using numbers and soon you’ll be second to none.


It might not make much sense not to have a radish in your pocket, or run two hares at the same time. Likewise, three peeled and one mown probably makes little sense to you in English. Hopefully this article will make it all a little clearer.

Many expressions in French using the number one are the same as those in English. Thus, ‘to be number one’ is être numéro un and the famous ‘one for all, all for one’ is un pour tous, tous pour un. Some are a little less usual, like not having a radish in your pocket or ne pas avoir un radis en poche. Apparently, in the nineteenth century, radishes were given out at bars because they made you thirsty. Radishes are, however, very cheap, and it is their cheapness that is the centre of this phrase, which means that you are so penniless, you don’t even have a radish to your name.

In a similar way with two, there are many equivalent expressions in French. You can have two strings to your bow, have two feet fixed firmly to solid ground or even burn your candle at both ends. Avoir deux cordes à son arc, avoir les deux pieds sur terre and brûler la chandelle par les deux bouts all mean the same as their English counterparts. But if hear that you mustn’t run two hares at the same time, you might be a little perplexed. Il ne faut pas courir deux lièvres à la fois means that you are better off sticking to one thing and doing it properly than you are trying to achieve two things at once.

Being as tall as three apples might not be a familiar English expression, although I’m not sure its English translation, ‘being knee-high to a grasshopper’ makes much sense in translation either. Both être haut comme trois pommes and being knee-high give you a clear image of just how short someone might be, though.

Like in English, three is also a number that comes together. If you wait for ages, you’ll always find three buses coming together, and the same in French. Jamais deux sans trois. The same goes for accidents as it does for buses, of course. Both good things and bad things come in threes.


One of my favourite expressions using trois in French is literally translated as ‘three peeled and a mown’. Trois pelés et un tondu is also slang for three baldies and a shaven-headed guy. You might be wondering what on earth this means, especially when it relates to an event that was very badly attended. It makes a little more sense if you think back to the past. In days gone by, being bald had a sense of being miserly, or also having some contagious skin condition, so three men who wouldn’t be sought out for company. Much like having a razor cut in the UK used to show the world you’d had a particularly nasty infection of lice, being shaven-headed in France had a similar connotation. Thus, if you were in the company of these four guys, you were in very poor company indeed. You can also say quatre pelés et un tondu. I’m not sure having an extra bald guy there means the event was any better, though.

‘Braking on four irons’ or freiner des quatre fers means ‘to dig your heels in’. You can imagine a horse in iron shoes locking every single one of its legs. It’s for those times when you stubbornly refuse to go a centimetre further. Similarly, if you tomber les quatre fers en l’air it means you have fallen flat on your back.

A final French expression with numbers relates to ‘every four mornings’. If someone did something every four mornings, roughly twice a week, you may not think it very frequent or regular. In French however, tous les quatre matins means ‘at the drop of a hat’.

No two ways about it, these French expressions with numbers will certainly help you zero in on the language. At the very least, it should be as easy as one, two, three