French April Fool's Day (Poisson d'Avril) & More Fishy Phrases

  • Adrien Renault
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French April Fool's Day (Poisson d'Avril) & More Fishy Phrases

April Fool’s day, the first day of the month of April where people play pranks on each other, is now pretty much recognized all over the world.

However, it’s highly likely that it originated in France back in the mid-1500’s.

Back then — and today — the French call April Fool’s Day poisson d’avril, which literally translates to “April Fish”.

French people have traditionally celebrated this day by sticking a paper fish to other people’s backs.

But why fish?

There’s no solid consensus on why this day in France is about fish.

The 3 main possibilities are:

  1. Calendar change: King Charles IX of France changed the start of the New Year from April 1st to January 1st and a lot of people disapproved of this, which ultimately led to their ridicule.
  2. Lent: During the Lenten fast, people were limited in what they could eat, with fish often being one of the few things they were allowed. There may have been a joke at the time offering fake fish.
  3. Fishing season: Some argue that April was a period of the year where fishing was banned to replenish fish stocks.

In any case, the April 1st tradition involving fish has persisted until today in France.

Other French expressions involving fish

There are some interesting expressions in French that use poisson and other fish.

Here are a few:

Noyer le poisson

Literally means “drown the fish”.

It means to deliberately confuse an issue or muddy the waters.

Il y a quelque chose de pourri au royaume des poissons

This is a play on a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”).

It means “Something is rotten in the kingdom of fish.”

This one’s used to indicate that there’s something suspicious or not quite right.

Être comme un poisson dans l’eau

“To be like a fish in water.”

As in English, it means to feel very comfortable or to be in one’s element.

Petit poisson deviendra grand

“The small fish will become big.”

It’s a way of saying that everyone, no matter how small or insignificant, has the potential to grow and become something great.

Avoir d’autres poissons à frire

This means “have other fish to fry”.

Similar to the English idiom, it’s used to express that you have other things to do or more important matters to attend to.

Chercher un petit poisson dans l’eau

Translates to “searching for a small fish in the water”.

This expression’s used when someone’s trying to find something or someone in a large area, usually with very little information to go on (the same as “needle in a haystack”).

C’est la loi du poisson

Literally means “it’s the law of the fish.”

This phrase is used to indicate survival of the fittest, and it’s akin to the idea of “the big fish eats the small one.”

Donner du lard aux poissons

“To give bacon to the fish.”

It’s a funny idiom meaning to waste something valuable (something like “pearls before swine”).

Il y a anguille sous roche

This translates to “there’s an eel under the rock”.

It’s used to imply that something is fishy or suspicious.

Faire des yeux de merlan frits

This one means “to make fried whiting eyes”.

This idiom is used to describe someone who has a blank or stupefied facial expression.

C’est un thon

This is an offensive phrase in French, which translates literally to “she’s a tuna”.

It’s used to mean “she’s really ugly”, so be careful with this one.

Verser des larmes de crocodile

Translates directly to “to shed crocodile tears”.

Just like the English equivalent, it’s used to describe insincere or fake tears.

Être muet/te comme une carpe

“To be mute as a carp.”

This expression’s used to describe someone who is silent or not saying a word, similar to the English idiom “silent as a fish”.


Just remember that April Fool’s day is April Fish day in France.

Fish are used in a variety of fun and interesting French expressions as well, and I’ve shared some of the more common ones here.

Did I miss any?

Comment below and share them.

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Donovan Nagel
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I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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