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Pardon? Watery phrases

Pardon? Watery phrases

Dive in to the world of French expressions with language expert Emma-Jane Lee


Not unlike English, you will find there are many interesting and useful expressions involving water in French. You might take water to someone’s mill, you might even find there is water in the gas. Hopefully, you may find you take to these interesting idioms like a duck to water or you may find you are a fish out of water..

Many French expressions match the English very closely where water is concerned. For instance, we say ‘it’s all water under the bridge’ for events that have happened and are no longer troubling you any longer. In French, we can say de l’eau a coulé sous les ponts which means the same thing.

Another similar expression is if you take to something easily in French, you are like a fish in water. Comme un poisson dans l’eau. Of course, we say a fish out of water to express discomfort or awkwardness, that you feel out of sorts, in the wrong environment. Here, the idea is the same, just expressed differently. A fish in water is happy as Larry, or even happy as a clam.

We might say we are keeping our head above water in English. It means we are keeping up, we aren’t drowning in something overwhelming. We are managing to survive. There is a similar expression in French: sortir la tête de l’eau. Taking your head out of the water. It means we are finding our feet once more.
If something is clear in English, we may say it is ‘crystal clear’. In French, we might say it is as clear as spring water. Clair comme de l’eau de roche. Not a sarcastic ‘as clear as mud’ but a statement that something is obvious or perfectly transparent.

In English, we have a proverb that ‘it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back’ which is slightly different in French, although the image of something small and lightweight doing serious damage is just as clear. In French, we might say c’est la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase. It’s the drop of water that causes the vase to overflow. Often, this is an expression we might use to suggest that some small and trivial event in a long line of small and trivial events is the one thing that has ignited our temper or our frustration.

One of my favourite expressions in French is when something finir or tourner en eau de boudin. Literally, this means that something finishes or turns in blood sausage water. Boudin is, of course, blood sausage or black pudding. One explanation for this expression is that the water used to clean the casings for the sausage was left foul and dirty, hence its use in this expression about something turning out terribly. Aside from being a favourite of mine, it is also one that is difficult to find a partner expression for.

Bringing water to someone’s mill might sounds like a strange thing to say, but in French, if we say apporter de l’eau à son moulin. It’s another expression that doesn’t really have a partner in English, though the sense of it is really that you are inadvertently adding to someone’s argument. Perhaps it has a little in common with ‘it’s all grist to the mill’ not only because of the mill connection, but the idea that whatever ‘it’ is, it is helping you achieve your goal, regardless of what it is.

Perhaps you have missed an opportunity and you are left empty-handed. French people may say rester le bec dans l’eau or staying with your beak in the water, like a heron who failed to catch a fish that escaped. You have been frustrated in your efforts.


If there is water in the gas, il y a de l’eau dans le gaz, then there is trouble brewing, a heavily-charged atmosphere. We might say a storm is brewing or you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Perhaps someone has been making mountains out of molehills? We could say se noyer dans un verre d’eau or drowning in a glass of water. In other words, making a drama out of something very minor. Maybe afterwards, someone might have to climb down and eat humble pie. In French, we would say mettre de l’eau dans son vin or watering his wine down.

Hopefully, that hasn’t been as dull as dishwater and now it’s as clear as spring water. Perhaps it will even allow you to keep your head above water, or may help you if you are determined, come Hell or high water, to learn a little French beyond the basics.

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. For more information see