Learning French – French Expressions with Cows

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The French have a very special relationship with cows, a kind of entente cordiale where it is agreed that in return for milk to make excellent cheeses, cows get a special place in French culture, notably in popular expressions, slang and humour.

French television commercials for cheese show pampered cows getting massages from the farmer, while children’s books show cheeky cows laughing when someone accidentally steps in one of their cowpats.

Even if you’re only beginning in French, it’s still a good idea to learn a few expressions that are commonly used in the French language, so let’s have a look at some ones involving the animal that has a special place in French people’s heart, the cow.

The French word for ‘cow’ is la vache, from Latin vacca. I haven’t found any English word related to it, the Germanic word ‘cow’ seems to be sufficient for us.

Being such a large animal, it has an impressive bladder, so in French you can say il pleut comme vache qui pisse, meaning, ‘it’s raining like a pissing cow’. It’s the French equivalent of ‘raining cats and dogs’.

Not being noted for their linguistic abilities, however, cows are also mentioned in an expression about someone who speaks a foreign language badly. Il parle français comme une vache espagnole – ‘he speaks French like a Spanish cow’. If Spanish humans were the victims of this kind of racist stereotyping I dread to think what the consequences would be. Unfortunately, Spanish cows, not being able to string a coherent sentence together in French, have never been able to defend themselves.

French financial journalists sometimes refer to economic downturns as ‘periods of skinny cows’ (vaches maigres). This is a reference to the biblical account of Joseph (of Technicolor dreamcoat fame) who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream about seven fat cows and seven skinny cows as periods of prosperity and famine respectively.

There is, paradoxically, a negative use of the word vache. As an adjective, it means a nasty, disagreable person: il est vache – ‘he’s nasty’. It only took one nasty cow to spoil it for all the others…

Finally, you can simply say ‘la vache!‘ as a kind of exclamation. Say it when you are surprised, shocked or angry. In addition, you can turn it into an adverb – c’est vachement bien means, ‘it’s cowingly good’.

So next time you’re in France, you’ll be able to apologize for your level of French, talk about the rain ‘persisting’ down, chat about the American economy and curse your bad luck – all by referring to our bovine friends!


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