Since I’ve started learning languages, I have always loved idioms and how they translate (or not!) into French, my mother tongue.

If I had to write down the list of my English top ten, they would probably be as follows:

  1. That’s the way the cookie crumbles
  2. This is the best thing since sliced bread
  3. Bob’s your uncle
  4. Dressed to the nines
  5. To chew the fat
  6. To be tickled pink
  7. And all that jazz
  8. Fit as a fiddle
  9. Excuse my French or Pardon my French
  10. Don’t give up the day job

A few comments on some of them:

This is the best thing since sliced bread. In French, we have taken a more technical slant and sometimes refer to ‘the best thing since the cheese wire’ (which, incidentally, is a ‘butter wire’ in French), although it can have a negative connotation as it is deemed a dead simple invention! I really love this transfer of analogies, where idioms are quite close in spirit, but a little bit different!

Dressed to the nines. I love it because in French we refer to number 31, not 9, with « être sur son trente-et-un », and I have found out that, in fact, it has nothing to do with number 31 but is a phonetic deformation of ‘trentain’ which was a luxurious piece of fabric!

Pardon my French. Obviously as a French person, this has always amused me. Is the origin of the expression to be found in the fact that the French swear more than the British? I would hate to think this may be true! However, initially it had nothing to do with swearing at all, but was said when British people would use French phrases in their speech, to sound more educated, but would apologise because mere mortals might not understand what they were talking about…

As a teacher of French these days, I always have a few sessions on French idioms and my students usually love it. They enjoy trying to understand what an idiom means literally, finding an equivalent in English, and they often make sure to use them in our next conversations. One of my students even used his favourite French idiom as a screensaver message on his office PC!

A word of caution, however… Idioms are lovely, very flowery and give your speech a local flavour which is second to none. Remember, though, that they are also difficult to understand for non-native speakers. If you carry out business with foreign counterparts, who may have varying degrees of understanding of the English language, I would advise you to stay clear of them and opt for a simpler language and style of communication. If you can’t rely on the services of an interpreter during meetings, or of a translator to translate your business correspondence, then the simpler the better to ensure your business transactions go smoothly.

So come on now, put your cards on the table, and tell us what you really think – what are your favourite idioms, and how do you use them in your everyday language? And if you run a business with an international dimension, please get in touch with us and see how we can help with your export strategies, by offering you our best services in translation, interpreting or language courses to learn the language of your business contacts abroad.


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