C’est l’hiver ! Winter is here! This invariably means excavating les doudounes (down jackets) from the depths of our closets, hunting for that warm underwear, and commenting on how f-f-friggin’ cold it is. But how do we say “It’s cold” in French? Here are 10 French cold weather expressions you can use when the mercury falls!
F-f-f-freezing en f-f-f-français. ❄️
1. Il fait froid. It makes cold.
As the standard French phrase students learn, il fait froid (“it’s cold”) is pretty foolproof. Unlike some of the expressions on this list, you can use this one safely in all settings: at school, with grandma, with the French president, etc. And if it’s especially frigid out, you can throw in a très or two: Brrr, il fait très froid !
⚠️ Note that in French, many weather-related expressions use the verb faire, which means “to do” or “to make.” They’re also impersonal and only function with the third person singular in the masculine (il). Essentially, il fait froid is like saying, “it makes cold.” Oui. Totally French.
2. Il fait un froid de canard. It makes a cold of duck.
As bizarre as it sounds, this informal expression, which is an extension of il fait froid, is quite popular! It comes from duck hunting, which takes place during the colder months of the year, when les canards are forced from their usual habitat along the edges of lakes and consequently make for easier prey. Following their targets, les chasseurs (the hunters) then stake out the frigid bodies of water where the fowl loaf and feed. And as they quietly wait for their feathered prey to approach, these armed predators endure the bone-chilling cold that inspired this expression. Lovely.
3. Il fait un froid sibérien. It makes a Siberian cold.
Well, this one’s pretty obvious. I think it’s fair to say that most people—myself included—don’t know much about la Sibérie beyond the idea that, in winter, it turns into an inhospitable, frozen wasteland. Oh, and that people are exiled there comme une punition (as punishment). So if you’re enduring punishing arctic conditions that make you contemplate how you’re going to survive until the spring thaw, you can gripe about le froid sibérien.
4. Il fait un froid de loup. It makes a cold of wolf.
By now, it’s clear that francophones like to comment on the many types of froid out there: a duck’s cold, a Siberian cold, and now, a wolf’s cold. But why a wolf?
This informal expression has an interesting backstory that takes us to the east of France, near the Swiss Alps, in the former region of Franche-Comté. It’s said that un froid le loup is a reference to the special tuiles à loups (“wolf tiles”) that covered the roofs of houses there. Legend goes that when the winds came in from the North, these tiles would whistle and crackle, signaling to the shepherds that both winter and wolves were on their way and it was time to retrieve the sheep from their grazing grounds and take shelter.
5. Il gèle. It’s freezing.
This is another standard weather expression that’s suitable for all audiences. Geler means “to freeze.” Just as importantly, it does not mean “to gel,” which makes it un faux ami (a “false friend” or false cognate).
⚠️ If you’re an anglophone, watch out for this too: while the verb geler has nothing to do with gelling, the noun le gel can refer to both a jelly-like substance OR frost. This makes it a semi-vrai ami (or semi-faux ami) because there’s a common meaning in French and English, but there’s a second definition that’s only applicable in one of the languages.
However, for practicality’s sake, it just helps to closely associate geler and le gel with freezing temperatures. Take l’antigel, which is not protection against hair gel or JELL-O®, but rather the antifreeze for your car!
6. Il gèle à pierre fendre. It’s freezing enough to crack a stone.
Put on your scientist hats! This informal expression was brought to you by the science of water!
When water crystallizes, its molecular structure changes, occupying more space. In other words: when water becomes ice, it expands. So if water seeps into a stone then freezes, its expansion can crack its surroundings. Then, following a thawing period, the stone may even break into pieces.
This is the notion behind il gèle à pierre fendre, which basically means it’s so cold that even the rocks are falling apart!
7. Ça caille ! It curdles!
Though we’ve talked about duck hunting and perhaps you were tempted to link this informal expression to la caille (quail), its origins in fact lie elsewhere.
Caille comes from the verb cailler, which means “to curdle” or “to coagulate.” (Cailler, is also, oddly enough, the name of a delicious Swiss chocolate brand, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The idea behind the expression is the following: as temperatures drop, fluids like blood begin to clot and your circulation begins to suffer. So when you feel the extreme conditions turning your vital fluids into a slushie, the appropriate thing to cry out is “ça caille !”
8. Ça pince. It pinches.
When the cold “pinches” in French, this is the equivalent of “it’s nippy.” And if you say “ça pince dur,” with dur meaning “hard,” this refers to a painful, biting cold—or un froid mordant.
9. On se pèle les miches. We are peeling our butts.
One of the more colourful ways to declare that it’s really cold: on se pèle les miches.
The star here is undoubtedly les miches, which is argot (French slang) for the buttocks. (Note: It can also mean the breasts or a large, round loaf of country bread. It’s not hard to see why they share a name, is it?)
That said, the verb se peler is also worth noting. Se peler sounds reflexive (“to peel oneself”), but idiomatically, it means “to be cold.” This comes from the dry, winter air causing skin—on our posteriors and elsewhere—to flake and peel.
Needless to say, on se pèle les miches is a very informal expression best left off your French term paper and kept out of polite conversation. If you’re not convinced, consider its English equivalent: “we’re freezing our asses off.”
A final note about on se pèle les miches: much like how composers come up with variations on a theme, francophones invented variant expressions—mostly vulgar ones—about different parts of one’s nether regions peeling, freezing, or curdling. So if you see one of the following—and I’m keeping the list PG-13—know that it basically means “to be freezing one’s [fill in the blank] off.”
👉 se peler le cul, se cailler les miches, se geler les meules, se geler les couilles, etc.
👉 se les peler, se les cailler, se les geler, etc. – In these examples, it’s understood that les refers to les miches or to male genitalia.
10. Y fait frette. It’s REALLY cold. (Québec)
Lastly, we can’t talk about French cold weather expressions without featuring something from icy Québec, can we?
Having lived in New England, I know a thing or two about brutal East Coast winters. However, I also know that everything I experienced pales in comparison to the annual winter pummeling the Québécois endure. Those folks know what truly bone-chilling, brain-numbing cold feels like. So, naturally, they have plenty of expressions about it!
One such expression is y fait frette, featuring frette, from the old French freit, meaning froid. This saying also showcases the québécois tendency of turning the il into y by dropping the L sound. (This y is therefore totally different from the one in il y a.)
The similarities between il fait froid and y fait frette notwithstanding, many Québécois point out that the latter actually describes a much more intense cold. Therefore it’s best to reserve y fait frette for when it’s so bitter out that anything requiring more exposure than a quick peek out the front door will have you… fretting!
Now that you’re armed with some French cold weather expressions, you can go out and practice using them! But not literally “outside.” Non, non, non ! Il gèle à pierre fendre ! Restez à l’intérieur, restez au chaud ! (Stay indoors and stay warm!)
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French Cold Weather Expressions • French Winter Expressions • French Weather Expressions and Idioms • How to Say “It’s Cold” in French