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When I lived in Cairo, I often used to watch the local television news bulletin in English. Rain is a pretty rare occurrence there, so one evening the Egyptian newsreader thought that a particularly heavy downpour was worth commenting on. He decided to go for a familiar colloquial expression to appear like a native speaker, and came out with 'It's been raining dogs and cats.' It sounded so strange switching the order of the animals around, and next day at the English school where I taught everyone was have a chuckle over it.
It is a difficult thing, getting colloquial language right in any language other than your own. I certainly don't remember being taught any French idioms at school or during the Open University courses I completed. The course books I use myself for tuition seem to more or less ignore them, concentrating on standard vocabulary and grammar. There was a definite need for a book such as '101 French Idioms' to fill a gap for those wishing to understand and speak French to perfection.
The book does its utmost to help us fathom these idioms by devoting a page to each one, allowing for a literal translation of the idiom in English, an English expression that explains the meaning of the idiom, a humorous cartoon depicting the literal translation of the idiom, and a short text, sometimes in the form of a dialogue, that uses the idiom in context. For example, 'Etre un bourreau des coeurs' is translated (literally) as 'to be an executioner of hearts' and the meaning is given as 'to be a Casanova, to be a lady-killer'. The illustration shows a hooded executioner holding a threatening axe above a terrified heart-shaped face, with three other heart-faces waiting in line, wondering if they too are about to come under the axe. The text describes an attractive, muscly, tall man by the name of Alan who is always being seen out with young girls and is full of charm: a real lady-killer. If you're still unsure of what all this is about, you can find an English translation of the text at the back of the book.
The 101 idioms are divided into nine sections in the book, according to the following topics:
Speaking about the Body
Our Animal Friends
Return to Nature
Eating in Style
Life Day by Day
Odds and Ends
Walking around Town
The Blue Planet
There are also two indexes, one arranging idioms alphabetically, the other by key word.
My first real awareness of these idioms came when I married, as my husband was half French. His main language was Arabic, so we spoke in French as it took me a good many years to be able to converse in Arabic. I can remember him frequently using the idiom 'Ce n'est pas la mer a boire' (it's not the sea to drink), meaning it's not as bad as all that, it's not asking the impossible. When someone got on his nerves, he would exclaim 'Il me casse les pieds' (he breaks my feet) - the cartoon in the book shows a man trying to read a newspaper, having his shoes and feet hammered to pieces by an obviously talkative man sitting next to him. Another common one was 'payer les pots casses' (to pay for the broken pots), meaning to suffer the consequences. The text in the book describes how a man's dog escaped to a neighbouring farm where he killed and ate two chickens. The farmer of course demanded that the dog's owner compensate him, so he 'paid for the broken pots.'
A few months ago I made a collection of French proverbs and was surprised by how many of them were literally equivalent to English ones. It doesn't seem to be quite so much the case with idioms, which makes them more difficult to understand and to learn. French does have 'batir des chateaux en Espagne', which is literally 'to build castles in Spain' and has the same meaning. 'Jeter l'argent par les fenetres' is another straightforward one: to throw money out of the window. But many of these idioms really do need to be explained and used in context, for example it would not have been obvious to me that 'avoir les jetons' (to have tokens) means to be scared or have the jitters.
This is not a book for beginners learning French, but for those who already have a good degree of fluency or have been living in France and are likely to hear these idioms in everyday conversation. Introducing humour into the illustrations does help with maintaining interest and probably helps a good few people who find it easier to learn or remember by visual associations. As there is no accompanying CD or tape, there is no pronunciation or intonation guide which again makes it a book for the more advanced learner.
If you really do want to understand all the ins and outs of French and strive to sound like an authentic native speaker, Jean-Marie Cassagne's '101 French Idioms' is an extremely useful addition to your coursebook and dictionary.
'101 French idioms', Jean-Marie Cassagne, illustrated by Lucques Nisset-Brown, published by Passport Books.
ISBN 0-8442-1290-3, price £3.99.