To Put the Wagons Before the Locomotive or a Month of French Idioms From A to Z

As soon as I embarked the A to Z Challenge, I knew that I would write about French idioms and their equivalents in American English. I also knew that I would have some trouble with a few letters. With a little bit of help (merci to my husband and to my Wonderful virtual French friend Lectrice en Campagne), I managed to find an expression for every letter of the alphabet.

Including W, even though W is not the first letter of the idiom-du-jour.


Mettre les Wagons Avant la Locomotive

Put the Wagons Before the Locomotive


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I didn’t find a matching idiom in English. But I personally favor another idiom, which was widely used in my native Normandy and has in addition a perfectly good match in English. It is not surprising to me that the French ‘Boeufs’ became a ‘Horse’ in the US.


Mettre la Charrue Avant les Boeufs

To Put the Cart Before the Oxen

To Put the Cart Before the Horse


Embed from Getty Images


Whatever idiom you prefer, both have the exact same meaning: Doing things the wrong way, confusing cause and effect.

It is also common to use these idioms in the negative form as a warning, such as: “Il ne faut pas mettre les wagons avant la locomotive,” Or: “Il ne faut pas mettre la charrue avant les boeufs.”

Your pick!

A to Z Challenge

See you tomorrow!


  1. Je connais surtout mettre la charrue avant les boeufs. Après tout parfois on trouve des wagons devant une locomotive, en tout cas il me semble d’en avoir vu en Allemagne.

  2. Sisyphus47 says:

    Tout à fait délicieux! J’aime aussi “it’s the tail that wags the dog” que je ne sais jamais traduire! 🙂

  3. We would also say to put the cart before the horse in the UK.

  4. It’s funny to see the wagons associated with a locomotive, but I’ve been reading a history of railroad accidents in the UK from the start of the railroads and that word is used a lot. Today, we talk of “cars” on a train rather than wagons (in the US). Cart before the horse or some of those expressions we agreed not to mention all come to mind here. I guess doing things in the wrong order is a universal trait throughout time.

    You’re into countdown mode, 3, 2, 1 done pretty soon. This has been fun to follow.

    • You are right about the carts, Dan. I did a literal translation. I knew that someone who loves and knows trains would add an interesting comment. 😊
      Glad you are having a good time with this series. The very last leg is approaching soon…

  5. So the Normandy expression clearly pre-dates the ‘standard French one. : ) I have a French colleague who teaches me all kinds of great French expressions. I’ve taken her lead, and now when some idea is completely useless, I say we’re off to ‘peigner la girafe’, and when either of us is confused in a meeting, we whisper ‘Quel vélo?’ Now you’re providing me with a whole new arsenal… : )

  6. Cart before the horse has got to be one the the most common expressions, even today. Unlike many others, it is used by young and old alike, even by kids who have probably never seen a cart and horse outside a movie or television.

  7. Alex Hurst says:

    I love this idiom, though it’s clear France has a more updated version! Pretty soon, though, they’re going to have to update the idiom again, when the younger generations won’t know what a cart or locomotive is. 😉 (My students already stare at toys of trains and go “That’s not what a train looks like…” haha!)

  8. This is an interesting expression in both English and French.

  9. Having used it many times, I’ll stick with the cart before the horse. 🙂 –Curt

  10. A horse is a lot smaller than a locomotive! Lisa, co-host AtoZ 2015, @

  11. That’s for sure. I like the horse/oxen/cart/charriot better than the locomotive and the wagons. But letter W was a challenge! See you, Lisa.

  12. Yep we go for putting the cart before the horse, but you found your ‘w’!

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