French expressions March 2022


Avoir du cœur au ventre (literally ‘to have a heart in your stomach’)

This expression means to be brave. It dates back to at least the 15th century, when it was employed by prominent count and soldier Jean de Bueil.
It is said that in the Middle Ages, ‘ventre’ referred to not only the belly but also the torso and chest. The chest later became known as le petit ventre (‘the little belly’).
The heart, having symbolised qualities such as sensitivity and courage since Greek times, is in its rightful place in this expression, fulfilling the role it is known for – giving courage. 

Faire le joli coeur (literally ‘to behave like the pretty heart’)

This expression, which was coined in the mid-19th century, means to behave like a seducer.
The heart, being the central organ of circulation, has been long used metaphorically to symbolise love or affection.
The adjective joli is used ironically here, as the expression implies a level of cunning or disingenuity.

Haut les cœurs! (Literally ‘hearts up!’)

This expression is an encouragement to launch oneself into action with enthusiasm, coined in the Middle Ages.
When raised high, the heart – symbolising courage and energy among other virtues – meant overcoming anything that could be holding one back, such as fear, obstacles, and fatigue.
The expression is a translation of the Latin sursum corda, a versicle (sentence sung in church service aiming to incite a response) used in mass to encourage attendees to take part in enthusiastic worship.


Verser un pot-de-vin (literally ‘to pour a pot of wine’)

This expression means to bribe.
In the 16th century, to ‘pour a pot of wine’ simply meant to leave a tip – to thank somebody for their services, often in the form of a drink or a small sum of money to buy wine.
However, over the centuries the expression took on a negative meaning and now refers to offering somebody goods or money in order to gain some kind of advantage from them.

Boire le calice jusqu’à la lie (literally ‘to drink the chalice down to the dregs’)

This expression means to endure something painful until the end. This can be a test, an experience, a humiliation.

The saying was coined around the 17th century. Here, the reference is to the cup of wine drank by a priest during mass. In christianity, the chalice represents the wrath of God. To drink its wine to the dregs – the deposits left at the bottom – is therefore to endure something torturously painful until the very end.

(être un) Sac à vin (literally ‘to be a bag of wine’)

To be a sac à vin is to be a drunkard.

It is said that this expression was coined in the 15th century when it was used by women as a nickname for their drunken husbands. At the time, wine was stored in leather bags but the sac could also refer to the belly, which is known to grow with the consumption of alcohol.


‘Être dans le rouge’ (literally ‘to be in the red’) means to be in a delicate financial situation. It is particularly used when a bank account is in minus figures, as it is in English.

Être marqué au fer rouge (literally ‘to be branded with a red iron’):

This means to be traumatised.
During the Roman times, criminals were branded on the forehead with a red-hot iron, in part to remind them of their crimes and in part to warn the rest of the population.
While this punishment was eventually abolished, branding was still used on animals, especially cattle and sheep, in order to be able to differentiate them.
A red (hot) iron is therefore associated with suffering, and is used, in this expression, to symbolise trauma.

Tirer à boulets rouges (literally ‘to shoot red balls’)

The phrase means to verbally attack or insult somebody.

It is said to date back to King Frederick William I of Prussia in the 18th century, who wanted to make his cannonballs more destructive. As a result, he decided to heat them in a cannonball oven before launching them at the enemy.
In addition to the destruction caused by the collision, the heated cannonballs also started fires.

The expression was first used literally, but later took on a figurative sense of attacking verbally, which it has maintained to this day.

Le rouge est mis (literally ‘the red is placed’)

This expression means that a decision is final. It has been used since at least the beginning of the 20th century.

One theory is that it comes from the world of racing, where a red disk would be placed on the scoreboard to show that the results were final.
Another theory is that the term relates to television sets, where a red light indicates that no interruption is possible.


Mettre sa main au feu (literally ‘to put your hand in the fire’)

This expression means to be sure of something.
It originated in the Middle Ages when people accused of crimes were subjected to ‘trials by ordeal’ – painful ‘tests’ in which the results were thought to be the ‘judgement of God’ and therefore a sure way to determine a person’s guilt or innocence.

One such ordeal was trial by fire in which an accused would have to put his or her hand in fire or seize a red-hot iron. If the hand healed quickly, it would mean that the accused had told the truth.
Now, when somebody is very sure that what they are saying is correct, they say that they would put their hand into fire to prove it, certain that if this were the trial by fire, theirs would heal quickly.

Mettre le feu aux poudres (literally ‘to put fire into the powder’)

This expression means to trigger a violent reaction or aggravate a situation. An English equivalent might be ‘to add fuel to the fire’.

It derives from an older expression coined by the navy in the 16th century – mettre le feu aux étoupes. It translated to ‘to set fire to oakum’, which was used to make fuses for weapons, and meant to arouse anger.

In the 18th century, the oakum was replaced by (gun)powder in the expression.

The image is therefore of lighting the fuse of a powder keg and watching it ‘get angry’ and explode.

It is said that in the 18th century, the phrase also took on an erotic connotation but it has mostly lost that aspect, and is nowadays used mainly used to illustrate the act of provoking someone to get angry.

Tirer les marrons du feu (literally ‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire’)

This expression means to profit from or reap the benefits of something at someone else’s expense.

It was popularised in writer Jean de La Fontaine’s fable Le Singe et le Chat (The Monkey and the Cat), published in the second half of the 17th century.  In the fable, the monkey convinces the cat to take roasting chestnuts out of a fire, with the cat hurting his paw but the monkey himself remaining unharmed in the process.

The original expression was tirer les marrons du feu avec la patte du chat (‘to pull chestnuts out of the fire using the cat’s paw’), accusing the subject of the expression of a level of opportunism.

Although the expression was abbreviated to simply ‘pull chestnuts out of the fire’, it still often implies benefiting from something at somebody else’s expense.