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 are given a special place in French culture, especially in popular expressions, slang and humour.

French TV commercials for cheese show pampered cows being massaged by the farmer, while children’s books show cheeky cows laughing when someone accidentally steps on one of their cow pats.

Even if you’re just starting out in French, it’s still a good idea to learn some expressions that are often used in the French language, so let’s take a look at some involving the animal that holds a special place in the hearts of the French, the cow.

The French word for “cow” is let watch, from Latin vacca. I have not found any English word related to it, the Germanic word ‘cow’ seems to be sufficient for us.

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

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

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

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

Finally you can just say ‘watch!‘ 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 awfully good”.

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

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