Because cats have been a presence in French households and businesses for centuries, references to them are common. Here are six of the most iconic French idioms using the French word for cat.
Note that the French word for cat is “un chat” (silent “t”), when speaking generically or about a male cat. It is “une chatte” (“t” is pronounced), when speaking about a female cat. For both, the “ch” takes the “sh” sound in “shave,” not the “tch” usually found in English.
Careful: The feminine word for cat (“une chatte”) has the same double entendre meaning as the English word “pussy.”
1. Appeler un chat un chat
Translation: To call a cat a cat
Meaning: To say things as they are; to call a spade a spade
Patrice est un gros menteur. Il faut appeler un chat un chat.
Patrice is a big liar. He needs to say things the way they are.
2. Avoir un chat dans la gorge
Translation: To have a cat in the throat
Meaning: To have a frog in the throat, an excess of mucus
Et je pense que… hum, hum. Désolée, j’avais un chat dans la gorge.
And I think that… hmm, hmm. Sorry, I had a frog in the throat.
3. Donner sa langue au chat
Translation: To give your tongue to the cat
Meaning: To not be able to guess.
Careful:It’s different from the English “Cat got your tongue,” which means to have nothing to say.
Et alors? Qui vient dîner demain ? Tu donnes ta langue au chat ? C’est Pierre!
So? Who is coming for dinner tomorrow? You can’t guess? It’s Pierre!
4. Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent.
Translation: When the cat is away, the mice dance.
Meaning: People misbehave without supervision.
Careful: The verb is “danser” with an “s” in French, not like “dance” with a “c” in English.
Ton ado a fait la fête toute la nuit quand vous étiez partis le weekend dernier? Ce n’est pas surprenant: Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent.
Your teen partied all night while you were gone last weekend? This is not surprising: When the cat is away, the mice will play.
5. Il n’y a pas un chat.
Translation: There is not a cat (in sight).
Meaning: There is no one (or only a few people, but less than expected).
Il n’y avait pas un chat à la réunion.
There was no one at the meeting.
6. C’est du pipi de chat.
Translation: It’s cat pee.
Meaning: It’s not important.
Tes problèmes à côté de ceux de Pierre, c’est du pipi de chat!
Your problems compared to Pierre’s are nothing!