Famous French sayings make for some of the most influential and often-repeated words worldwide. Some French sayings are ancient proverbs, while others are more recent sayings from writers and poets.
Well-Known French Proverbs
Les dictons, or proverbs, are short phrases that sometimes originated as verse and which often explained events and situations before the Age of Enlightenment introduced science. French proverbs often relate to various objects or things to emphasize a point or impart wisdom. Proverbs may include relationships to, or mention of, animals, people, dining and eating, jobs and occupations, or activities and events.
What is interesting about French proverbs is that their literal translations may sound funny, but many of the proverbs have an English equivalent:
- On n’apprend pas aux vieux singes à faire des grimaces. This is literally translated as “You cannot teach old monkeys to make faces,” and is similar in meaning to the English phrase “You cannot teach old dogs new tricks.”
- Chacun voit midi à sa porte. This translates to “Everyone sees noon at his own door;” with a little imagination you get to the English equivalent “To each his own.”
- Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point. Translating this word-for-word works out to “There’s no sense in running; you just have to leave on time,” which is similar to the English adage “Slow and steady wins the race.”
- On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne. This French phrase is literally translated as “One does not change a winning team,” and is similar in meaning to the common English phrase “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” or “Leave well enough alone.”
- Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu. The literal translation (“There isn’t smoke without fire”) is very close to the equivalent English phrase ” Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
- Vaut mieux prévenir que guérir. This famous saying in French can be translated as “It is better to prevent than to heal,” and is similar to the popular English adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
- Autres temps, autres mœurs. This translates to “Other times, other values,” or, in English, simply “Times change.”
- Un malheur ne vient jamais seul. The translation of this one is “Misfortune never arrives alone,” more idiomatically stated as “When it rains, it pours.”
- Vouloir, c’est pouvoir. Translates as “To want is to be able,” and in English might be stated as “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
- Il faut réfléchir avant d’agir. Literally translated as “One must reflect before acting,” the English equivalent is “Look before you leap.”
- Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. This translates directly as “If youth only knew; if old age only could,” which is similar to the English proverb “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Famous French Sayings From Writers
French writers, poets, and philosophers have provided wit and wisdom that has circulated around the world. Some of these sayings may be familiar:
- Tout arrive en France. This saying translates to “Everything happens in France,” from Maximes, Réflexions morales by François de La Rochefoucauld
- Tous pour un, un pour tous. “All for one, one for all,” from Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) by Alexandre Dumas
- Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es. “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are” (You are what you eat) from Physiologie du goût, Méditations IV, de l’appétit by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
- Rien ne sert d’être vivant s’il faut qu’on travaille. “Being alive serves no purpose if you have to work” from Nadja, by André Breton
- On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. “We see well only with the heart” from Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- La mort n’a peut-être pas plus de secrets à nous révéler que la vie? Translates as: “Perhaps death doesn’t have any more secrets to reveal to us than life?” from Correspondences à Georges Sand by Gustave Flaubert
- Il n’y a qu’ un bonheur dans la vie, c’est d’aimer et d’être aimé. Translates as: “There is only one happiness in life: to love and be loved.” from Correspondence à Lina Calmatta by Georges Sand.
- Il vaut mieux faire que dire. Translates as: “Doing is better than saying.” from Pierre et Camille by Alfred de Musset.
There are many words of love, French humor and wisdom provided by the French. Whether you are a philosopher or a lover of words, French sayings can enhance your view of both French language and French culture. Even if there is an equivalent phrase in English, sometimes it’s fun to use the French one for a change of pace.
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