Un ours mal léché, literally a “badly licked bear”, is used to describe an unsociable person. The expression appeared in the 18th century to describe someone who doesn’t mingle with the society and whose behavior is a bit rude. The expression mal léché means “impolite” or “rude”. It was believed that the bear cubs were not fully formed at their birth and that the mother bear had to licked them so that they would be perfect.
A la bonne franquette is an expression that means “simple, without any fuss, informal”. The word franquette comes from the adjective franc, “frank”, “straightforward”. A la bonne franquette, used since the 17th century, is like saying really simple, but there without any negative connotation! Hier soir, nous avons mangé à la bonne franquette. “Yesterday evening, we had a simple meal.”
Au ras des pâquerettes, literally “level with the daisies”, means “very low”. This expression appeared because the daisies are very small flowers. At the beginning, it was used in its literal sense but then it evolved to describe things that are unremarkable, mediocre or low-level.
This is an easy one. La part du lion is the most generous portion, “the lion’s share”. This expression dates back to 1832. It has been used by Victor Hugo in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The lion has always been perceived as the most powerful animal, the king of the animals. From that, one can easily figure out that la part du lion is the most generous portion!
Ne pas être dans son assiette, literally “to not be in one’s plate”, means to not be feeling very well. In fact, “assiette” comes from “‘asseoir” (to sit) and used to refer to the way of sitting in the 16th century. In a figurative way it refers to a state of mind and this is where the expression comes from. The closest expression in English would be “to be under the weather”.
Manger des pissenlits par la racine, literally “to eat dandelions from its roots”, means to be dead. The expression dates back to the 19th century. It is an allusion to plants, which, like the dandelions, grow easily on freshly plowed soil. More precisely, the dandelions would grow where someone has been buried and then spread on the grave, “feeding” the deceased person.
Clouer le bec à quelqu’un, “to shut someone up”, usually means the person won an argument, leaving the opponent speechless. In this expression, clouer has nothing to do with the homophone verb clouer, “to nail”. It comes from cloer, “to close”. So how about le bec (“beak” in English)? Well, it is a slang word for the mouth and is used in a lot of idiomatic expressions in French. From there, clouer le bec is an expression easy to understand!
Un oeil de boeuf, literally “eye of a bull”, refers to a relatively small oval window, usually for an upper floor. This kind of window was very common in France, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Minute papillon, literally “Minute, butterfly”, means “slowly” or “hold your horses”. The expression dates back to the 20th century. However, its origin is not very clear.
It might be a reference to the butterflies that flit from flower to flower but never stop for a very long time.
But, according to another story, the expression would be related to a Parisian café popular with journalists. There was a waiter called Papillon. He used to answer “Minute, j’arrive” when too many people were calling him at the same time. And apparently, when customers – and the journalists who spread the story – wanted to tell him to take his time, they would say “Minute, Papillon”
Faire d’une pierre deux coups, literally “to strike twice with one stone”, is the English equivalent of “to kill two birds with one stone”. In prehistoric times, slingshots have been used for hunting. When the hunter could kill two birds with a single stone, French used to say faire d’une pierre deux coups. The expression still has the same meaning nowadays and is used to talk about efficiency and getting things done.