To supply a little background, I only started learning French this year, so these are really my favorite French idioms that I have encountered so far. With luck, the 2018 edition of The French Have a Phrase For It will be followed by a 2019 edition, then a 2020 edition, and so on into the l’avenir indéfini (the indefinite future).
- l’esprit de l’escalier: You know those times when you are engaged in learned argument and/or witty banter with someone, and then they come up with something that just shuts you completely down? And then the perfect response comes to you, but far too late, while you are already on your way home? That’s exactly the situation described by l’esprit de l’escalier, or “staircase wit”: the perfect response that comes to you too late, after you have left the party and thus have no opportunity to use it.
- un dialogue de sourds: This one describes a lot of political discourse today: “a dialogue of the deaf.” In other words, people talking past each other without listening, so that there’s a lot of noise being produced but nothing much being communicated. It’s a cousin to a phrase I can’t quite place from my long-ago studies in German, which described two philosophers talking past each other, then asked, “but who would call two monologues conversation?”
- faire la grasse matinée: The English idiom, “to sleep in,” is perfectly serviceable, but doesn’t is sound more impressive to say you are taking la grasse matinée, or the fat morning? Among other things, the French idiom carries a whiff of abundance, as if you are so rich (with time or otherwise) that you can revel in the pleasure of not getting up and getting on with the world’s work as you normally would be obliged to do.
- poser un lapin à quelqu’un: The meaning is simple: “to stand someone up” in the sense of not turning up for a date or other engagement. What that has to do with rabbits (les lapins) is a question best addressed by someone with more knowledge of French than me.
- avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez: Literally “to have mustard going up your nose,” this phrase means to get angry. To make the idiom work, you need to think not of that bright yellow and largely tasteless stuff that generally passes for mustard in this country, but something much hotter and spicier that really could set your nasal passages (and thus your temper) ablaze. | Sarah Boslaugh