Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Few Sheepish Expressions

One of Understanding Frenchman's favourite things to do as we chat over the dinner table is to drop idiomatic French expressions into the conversation to see whether I continue the discussion without batting an eyelid or interrupt with my (far more usual) Ça veut dire quoi, ______ ?” At which point he always indulges in a little chuckle before giving in and telling me what the saying means.

And so it was last Saturday that I discovered that not only do the French count sheep, just as we do, when they can't get to sleep, but that their name for leapfrog is saute-mouton, or jump-the-sheep. (Perhaps this is because all the frogs in France have had their back legs cut off and fried in oil and garlic ... bwahhahaha)*

This caused me to reflect that there are quite a lot of expressions involving sheep in French. Moutons de Panurge are the equivalent of lemmings, meaning people who mindlessly copy others, and revenir à nos moutons means “let's get back to the subject in hand.” A quick search in my handy Dictionnaire des expressions et locutions also threw up un mouton enragé (someone who rarely gets angry who has just got angry) and le mouton à cinq pattes – the five-footed sheep which is of course extremely difficult to find. (If you want to say that an action is nothing out of the ordinary, however, it's not a sheep that's involved, but a duck, because the expression is ça ne cassera pas quatre pattes d'un canard ... (or trois pattes) depending on where you come from.))

I was going to look up sheep-based sayings in English too, to find out if there were just as many, but then I thought it would be more fun to see how many you can all think of – ideas in the comments box please!

* Actually, as anyone who has lived in France can tell you, French people hardly ever eat frogs' legs and, when I looked it up, I discovered that per capita consumption is only 60g per year, so there must be another explanation for the sheep.


  1. There's also "On n'a pas élevé les moutons ensemble"...although I used this expression last week and apparently outside of Bretagne, people say "On n'a pas élevé/gardé les cochons ensemble".

  2. I'm intrigued to know the situation where you used that one - sounds like a blog post in the making!

    Although my dictionary only has the "cochons" version, and it says you can replace "cochons" with "dindons" or "oies" but not sheep or goats, so maybe the saying with "moutons" means something a bit different?

    1. No, it means the same thing....but maybe they use sheep in Bretagne because they raise a lot of pigs (and turkeys & geese) in Brittany. But there are no sheep there, so there is no chance they could have actually raised them together!

    2. That definitely makes sense!

  3. Update: the dictionary says that "Nous n'avons pas gardé des cochons ensemble” “remet à distance raisonnable le grossier personnage qui contrevient lourdement au respect des distances sociales.” But Understanding Frenchman's first translation was "Nous ne sommes pas du même monde" and according to him, "tu peux dire toute la ferme."

    Ahh, les bretons!

  4. In Nantes, we say "on n'a pas élevé les cochons ensemble". I can't think of other expressions on top of my head, my French is rusty! The funny thing is, I can't remember seeing that many sheep in France, I think we have more cows, pigs, etc. than sheep.

  5. I'm still terrible with idiomatic expressions, 'revenons à nos moutons' was the only one of those I knew. "Separate the sheep from the goats" is the only English expression I can think of off the top of my head too.

  6. Apparently you can say "the black sheep of the family" in lots of languages: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1512679&langid=6