French Vocabulary in English
French terms and expressions commonly used in English
Over the years, the English language has borrowed a great number of words
and expressions from French. Some of this vocabulary has been so completely
absorbed by English that speakers might not realize its origins. Other words
and expressions have retained their "Frenchness" - a certain je ne sais quoi
which speakers tend to be much more aware of (although this awareness does
not usually extend to actually pronouncing the word in French). The
following is a list of French terms which are commonly used in English.
Used like "farewell"; when you don't expect to see the person again
until God (when you die and go to Heaven)
A person who attempts to provoke suspected individuals or groups into
committing unlawful acts
A military officer who serves as a personal assistant to a
1. Position paper
2. Something that acts as an aid to memory, such as crib notes or a
à la carte
on the menu*
French restaurants usually offer a menu with choices for each of the
several courses at a fixed price. If you want something else (a side order),
you order from the carte. *Note that menu is a false cognate in French and
à la mode
in fashion, style
In English, this means "with ice cream" - apparently someone decided
that having ice cream on pie was the fashionable way to eat it.
From Latin, "to open"
The French term actually refers to snow boots, but the literal
translation of the term is what is meant in English, as in "après-ski"
à propos (de)
on the subject of
In French, à propos must be followed by the preposition de. In English,
there are four ways to use apropos (we leave out the accent and the space):
Adjective - appropriate, to the point: "That's true, but it's not
Adverb - At an appropriate time, opportunely: "Fortunately, he
Adverb/Interjection - by the way, incidentally: "Apropos, what
Preposition (may or may not be followed by of) - with regard to,
speaking of: "Apropos our meeting, I'll be late"; "He told a funny story
apropos of the new president."
Short for art décoratif
A person assigned to a diplomatic post
Au fait is used in British English to mean "familiar" or "conversant":
She's not really au fait with my ideas.
In French, au gratin refers to anything that is grated and put on top
of a dish, like breadcrumbs or cheese. In English, au gratin means "with
in the juice
Served with the meat's natural juices.
in reality, unseasoned
In this case naturel is a semi-false cognate. In French, au naturel can
mean either "in reality" or the literal meaning of "unseasoned" (in
cooking). In English, we picked up the latter, less common usage and use it
figuratively, to mean natural, untouched, pure, real.
A person who works for a family (cleaning and/or teaching the children)
in exchange for room and board
Innovative, especially in the arts
to have weight
This word has a very interesting etymology. The words avoir du poids
are French, but the expression itself is English: the words were (in a
nutshell) imported into English from Old French, strung together, and then
the new term, which referred to commodities sold by weight, was exported
back to French in the 15th century. Today it is an informal, general term
Similar to a pet peeve: something that is particularly distasteful or
difficult and to be avoided.
This is the only adjective in English which agrees in gender with the
person it modifies: blond is for a man and blonde for a woman. Note that
these can also be nouns.
The closest English equivalent is "Enjoy your meal."
Someone who lives well, who knows how to enjoy life.
English has "Have a good trip," but Bon voyage is more elegant.
small, dark-haired female
The French word brun, dark-haired, is what English really means by
"brunette." The -ette suffix indicates that the subject is small and female.
Free hand, ability to do whatever you want/need
The French word for the fruit gives us the English word for the color.
c'est la vie
Same meaning and usage in both languages
In English, this is often mistakenly written as "chaise lounge" - which
actually makes perfect sense.
charged with business
A substitute or replacement diplomat
Barbed wire, spikes, or broken glass attached to wood or masonry and
used to block access
A long mirror set into a moveable frame
Chic sounds more chic than "stylish."
coup de grâce
Deathblow, final blow, decisive stroke
Overthrow of the government
crème de cacao
cream of cacao
crème de la crème
cream of the cream
Synonymous with the English expression "cream of the crop" - refers to
the best of the best.
crème de menthe
cream of mint
This is a funny term. Despite its meaning, crème fraîche is in fact
slightly fermented, thickened cream.
Critique is an adjective and noun in French, but a noun and verb in
English; it refers to a critical review of something or the act of
performing such a review.
kitchen, food style
In English, cuisine refers only to a particular type of food/cooking,
such as French cuisine, Southern cuisine, etc.
bottom of the bag
In French, débutante is the feminine form of débutant - beginner (noun)
or beginning (adj). In both languages, it also refers to a young girl making
her formal debut into society. Interestingly, this usage is not original in
French; it was adopted back from English.
The first is a noun, the second an adjective, but both refer to low
necklines on women's clothing.
The French word simply refers to the act of tasting, while in English
"degustation" is used for a tasting event or party, as in wine or cheese
This is a grammatical structure in French, as in "Je l'ai déjà vu"=>
I've already seen it. It can also disparage a style or technique that has
already been done, as in "Son style est déjà vu" => His style is not
In English, déjà vu refers to the scientific phenomenon of feeling
like you have already seen or done something when you're sure that you
1. A marginal or disrespectful group
2. Prostitutes and/or kept women
Refers to a small cup of espresso or other strong coffee.
out of fashion
Same meaning in both languages: outmoded, out of fashion
Socially or culturally obligatory
The newest fashion or trend
of too much
A word play or pun. For example, you're looking at a field of sheep and
you say "How are you (ewe)?"
of the day
"Soup du jour" is nothing more than an elegant-sou ding version of
"soup of the day."
eau de toilette
Toilet here does not refer to a commode; see toilette, below. Eau de
toilette is a very weak perfume.
A simple adverb in French, "encore" in English refers to an additional
performance, usually requested with audience applause.
Refers to a troublesome or embarrassing person within a group (of
artists, thinkers, etc).
Warning that one should be on his/her guard, ready for an attack
(originally in fencing).
In a group, all together
On the way
Part of a set, together
esprit de corps
Similar to team spirit or morale
Fait accompli seems more fatalistic to me than done deed, which is so
I once saw an ad for "genuine faux pearls." No worries that those
pearls might be real, I guess - you were guaranteed fake ones. :-)
false step, trip
Something that should not be done, a foolish mistake.
An alluring, mysterious woman who seduces men into compromising
engaged person, betrothed
Note that fiancé refers to a man and fiancée to a woman.
Black is used here in the sense of morbid or depressing, as in black
In French, this can refer to either the final in sport (e.g.,
quarter-final, semi-final) or the finale of a play. In English, it can only
mean the latter.
fin de siècle
end of the century
Hyphenated in English, fin-de-siècle refers to the end of the 19th
flower of lily
A type of iris or an emblem in the shape of an iris with three petals.
folie à deux
craziness for two
Mental disorder which occurs simultaneously in two people with a close
relationship or association.
Refers to superior/greater force, or to an unexpected or uncontrollable
Refers to an impish or playful girl/woman.
Tactless, lacking social grace
Used mostly in art and film - "I really like this genre..."
High-class, fancy (and expensive) clothing styles
High-class, fancy (and expensive) cooking or food
hors de combat
out of combat
Out of action
outside of work
An appetizer. Oeuvre here refers to the main work (course), so hors
d'oeuvre simply means something besides the main course.
je ne sais quoi
I don't know what
Used to indicate a "certain something," as in "I really like Ann. She
has a certain je ne sais quoi that I find very appealing."
joie de vivre
joy of living
The quality in people who live life to the fullest
let it be
A policy of non-interference
master of hotel
The former is more common in English, which is strange since it is
incomplete: "The 'master of' will show you to your table."
mal de mer
sickness of sea
In English, refers to the day's first showing of a movie or play. Can
also refer to a midday romp with one's lover.
Exactly the right word or expression.
nom de plume
No longer used in French.
Used in genealogy to refer to a woman's maiden name: Anne Miller née
(or nee) Smith.
Disparaging term for someone who has recently come into money.
Used for art
Quintessential, preeminent, the best of the best
It may sound chic, but petit is simply the feminine French adjective
Small dessert, especially cake
pièce de résistance
piece of stamina
In French, this originally referred to the main course - the test of
your stomach's stamina. In both languages, it now refers to an outstanding
accomplishment or the final part of something - a project, a meal, etc.
foot on ground
A temporary or secondary place of residence.
Someone whose training is sponsored by an influential person.
reason for being
Purpose, justification for existing
In French, this refers to a date or an appointment (literally, it is
the verb se rendre - to go - in the imperative); in English we can use it as
a noun or a verb (let's rendez-vous at 8pm).
quick, accurate response
The French repartie gives us the English "repartee," with the same
meaning of a swift, witty, and "right on" retort.
Suggestive, overly provocative
A long, multi-volume novel which presents the history of several
generations of a family or community. In both French and English, saga tends
to be used more.
The English refers to a reddish cosmetic or metal/glass-polishing
powder, and can be a noun or a verb.
This abbreviation stands for Répondez, s'il vous plaît, which means
that "Please RSVP" is redundant.
The ability to maintain one's composure.
Used mainly in academia, although it's also seen in the font style
"sans serif" => without decorative flourishes.
knowing how to do
Synonymous with tact or social grace.
What one claims about oneself; so-called, alleged
taken care of
1. Sophisticated, elegant, fashionable
2. Well-groomed, polished, refined
In English, refers to an elegant party.
Used figuratively like hint: There's just a soupçon of garlic in the
A scene made up of silent, motionless actors
1. A table for all guests to sit together
2. A fixed-price meal with multiple courses
head to head
A private talk or visit with another person
In French, this refers both to the toilet itself and anything related
to toiletries; thus the expression "to do one's toilette" - brush hair, do
makeup, etc. See eau de toilette, above.
Originally used in fencing, now equivalent to "you got me."
tour de force
turn of strength
Something which takes a great deal of strength or skill to accomplish.
trick the eye
A painting style which uses perspective to trick the eye into thinking
it is real. In French, trompe l'oeil can also refer in general to artifice
face to face
In French, vis-à-vis must be followed by the preposition de. Used in
English to mean "compared to" or "in relation with": His feelings vis-à-vis
my ideas are irrelevant.
flight of the wind
In both French and English, a vol-au-vent is a very light pastry shell
filled with meat or fish with sauce.
French has also given English scores of words in the domains of ballet
and cooking. The literal meanings of the French words are (in parentheses).
Ballet terms: barre (bar), chaîné (chained), chassé (chased),
développé (developed), effacé (shaded), pas de deux (two step), pirouette
(turn), plié (bent), relevé (lifted)....
Cooking terms: blanch (from blanchir => to bleach), sauté (fried over
high heat), fondue (melted), purée (crushed), flambée (burned)....
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