Friday, 7 September 2012

French Words and Phrases in English

Here's a posting from my old web site. I started it in 1999 and last updated it in 2001.


French has influenced English in several ways. First, some French-speaking people conquered England in 1066 A.D. and ruled it. From that period, we get many words that we think of as English now (e.g. "royal" and "pork"). Second, France had its renaissance earlier than England and was a wealthier country than England for many centuries, so England borrowed many words and phrases for cooking, fashion, and the arts from France. Third, French became the official language of diplomacy, so that many words and phrases for law, war, and travel came into English. These days, French has lost status because the United Nations has five official languages, not just one: English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.


"To God." Means "good-bye."
à la
"In the style of." E.g. a food that is in the Greek style is "à la Greque" and pie with ice cream on top is in the fashionable style, or "à la mode."
à propos
"With reference to." I said something à propos of nothing.
au gratin
Covered with melted cheese.
au naturel
Covered with nothing. Nude.
A "vanguard" (the English equivalent) was the part of an army that marched in front. Now it means anything that is very new in fashion.
bête noire
"Black beast." Anything that you fear and hate is your bête noire.
bon appétit
"Good appetite!" Say this before eating.
As a noun, it means "middle class." As an adjective, it means "conventional, materialistic, and boring."
In French, it just means "buttonhole." In English, it is the flower in the lapel of a man's jacket.
A coffeehouse or small, cheap, restaurant.
cause célèbre
A "famous case"; it is something that everyone is talking about.
The belief that members of your group are better than anyone else. (Nicolas Chauvin was one of Napoleon's supporters). In French, it is spelled "chauvinisme."
In French, it is a piece of clothing that covers the chest. In English, it is a flower on a woman's dress or jacket. It is the custom for a man to present his date with a corsage to wear on an important evening out, such as a graduation ceremony.
coup d'état
"Attack on the state." A "coup" (as it is sometimes abbreviated) is where the army suddenly replaces the government of its country.
coup de grâce
"Stroke of kindness." Originally, this meant cutting the throat of a wounded enemy to stop their suffering. Now it means the final action that defeats someone else. "I was already better than him at school. Beating him in the tennis game, too, was just the coup de grâce."
"Bottom of the bag." A street that goes nowhere, but just stops.
A low-cut lady's neckline, exposing some of the breast. Alternatively, it is the portion of the breast exposed by a low neckline. Although this is from the French verb "décolleter," "décolletage" is not often used in French. (We borrow from French, but that does not mean that we borrow accurately!)
de rigeur
Required or necessary. "A suit and tie are de rigeur at a wedding."
double entendre
"To hear twice." If a statement can be interpreted as innocent or as sexual then it is a double entendre. (Another phrase used in English more than in French).
enfant terrible
"Terrible child." A talented, embarassing, energetic young person, such as Mozart. English doesn't seem to have a word for this, so we also borrowed the German word for the same thing: "Wunderkind."
déjà vu
"Already seen." This is the feeling that people sometimes get, when they go somewhere for the first time, that they have been there before.
esprit de corps
"Spirit of the group." If the members of a group are proud to belong to it, and work hard to improve it, then that group has esprit de corps.
fait accompli
"A finished action." If someone was going to stop you from doing something, but you've already finished doing it, then you have given them a fait accompli.
faux pas
"False step." An action which is not socially acceptable. For example, telling jokes about blind people when a blind person can hear you, or to the friends or family of blind people, is a faux pas. Don't do it.
femme fatale
"Deadly woman." A very attractive single woman who breaks many men's hearts.
A woman who is to be married.
film noir
"Black movie." A type of cynical movie that was popular in the 1930's and 40's. An example would be The Maltese Falcon. (Watch it if you can!) A modern equivalent would be the film Bladerunner.
fin de siècle
"End of the century." The decadent period at the end of the 19th century.
"Fineness." Doing something extremely well and delicately.
folie à deux
"Craziness shared by two people."
Literally, this is the "strong" section of a sword blade, near the hilt. This is used in English to mean something that a person does better than anything else. "Learning languages is not my forte."
"Left." Means "rude or socially wrong." For example, if someone eats peas with a knife, say "Don't be gauche!"
Someone who knows and loves good food.
Somone who loves food, good or not, and eats lots of it.
hors de combat
"Out of the fight." Someone who has been hurt badly and has given up. "Has Ralph started dating again?" "No, he's still hors de combat."
"Outside of the work." A snack you eat before the meal.
je ne sais quoi
"I don't know what." If you like something, but don't know why, you say that it has a je ne sais quoi.
joie de vivre
"Joy of life." Some people are always happy. They have joie de vivre.
"Let it be." An adjective describing a policy of not interfering with something. Often used to describe government economic policies, for example. To quote a song by the Canadian group Moxie Früvous "It's laissez-faire. I don't even give a care."
Someone who gives unreasonably strict orders. (Jean Martinet was a French military officer in the 17th century).
"Born." You can say a woman's married and maiden names together if you call her, for example "Mrs. Christine Lee, née Lu."
noblesse oblige
"My nobility makes me." Why did you give your sandwich to that poor person? "Noblesse oblige."
nom de plume
"Pen name." This is the name that a writer puts on his books, if he doesn't want to use his real name.
nouveau riche
"Newly rich." People who have earned a lot of money recently, and don't have the taste or education to know the proper way to use it. For example, Elvis Presley's house, Graceland, is famous for being very large, very expensive, and very, very ugly. He was obviously nouveau riche.
pièce de résistance
The best part of something. "The Science Fair was excellent, but Calvin's project was the pièce de résistance."
Risky. Sexy.
"Répondez s'il vous plaît" means "Please respond." If you get an invitation to a party, the letters RSVP at the bottom mean that you should let the host know if you will be coming.
"Head to head." A quiet conversation by two people about serious or intimate things is a tête-à-tête.
"Touched." In fencing (sword fighting) you say this as the other person's sword touches you. In conversation, you might say it if the other person pokes a hole in what you've said. "I hate to spend money." "You spent $50 in the restaurant just last night!" "Touché." The English equivalent is "You got me."

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