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Etymology meets entomology: French expressions with insects

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On the BBC’s Pointless quiz show recently, there was a round all about French names for insects.

« Ça m’a mis la puce à l’oreille. » [It put the flea in my ear] = It got me thinking

More interesting than a mere list of insect vocabulary, how about some insect-related phrases?

Straight off the bat, another “flea” expression would be the equivalent of our expression, “a stone’s throw from here”:

« Ce n'est qu’un saut de puce » [It’s the jump of a flea]

Le dictionnaire fourmille* de références aux insectes.

The dictionary is teeming with* references to insects. Unfortunately, the majority are negative - rather like in our own insectist language! There are however a few little gems that you might even want to learn and use. Here is a small selection: [the square brackets show the literal translation]

Il prend la mouche [He’s taking the fly] = He’s gone off in a huff

Elle a le cafard [she has the cockroach] = to feel a bit depressed

cafarder [to cockroach] = to tell tales about someone

une coccinelle = ladybird. This is also what the French call the VW Beetle

"Arrête d’asticoter ton frère !" = Stop annoying your brother! [un asticot = maggot] I suppose we say to “bug” someone…

un éphémère = a mayfly… because it is so ephemeral, famously only living for a single day

un éphémèride = a block calendar, one of those that you tear a page off each day

On being very thin:

Tu as un ver solitaire ? = Do you have a tape-worm?!

Tu as une taille de guêpe = waist of a wasp = hour-glass figure

Other honourable mentions:

For years I thought that the praying mantis was a ‘preying’ mantis, assuming that their name reflected what efficient predators they were, rather than the anthropomorphised association with their physical form. The French has no such ambiguity: “une mante religieuse” !

Ants deserve a whole section to themselves: les fourmis (feminine word)

Elle s’affaire comme une fourmi = She’s as busy as a bee, as we say in English

In the opening section of this post, I translated “teeming with” as “fourmiller de…”

I wonder whether you have worked out by now that this is the verb form of the noun: la fourmi à fourmiller.

And finally, if you have been sitting still for too long, reading this, you might have “des fourmis dans les jambes” = [ants in the legs] pins and needles.

Similar to this, let’s finish with the same little mite that we started with: “Tu as des puces, ou quoi?!” Have you got ants in your pants, or what?

While I was and double-checking some of the above details with my French friend and colleague, she told me about a famous trilogy in modern French literature, by Bernard Werber: “Les fourmis”. Translated as “The Empire of the Ants”

You can read an extract here: EXTRAIT DU LIVRE : LES FOURMIS de Werber | BIBLIOTHEQUE à Céder (

Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages

There are places available in French classes at beginner, intermediate and advanced level. Please Contact | me here if you would like to find out about joining a class

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