Over the years, the English language has borrowed a great number of French words and expressions. 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 words and expressions which are commonly used in English. The literal English translation is provided in quotation marks and followed by an explanation.
adieu “until God”
Used like “farewell”: when you don’t expect to see the person again until God (when you die and go to Heaven)
agent provocateur “provocative agent”
A person who attempts to provoke suspected individuals or groups into committing unlawful acts
aide-de-camp “camp assistant”
A military officer who serves as a personal assistant to a higher-ranking officer
aide-mémoire “memory aid”
1. Position paper
2. Something that acts as an aid to memory, such as crib notes or mnemonic devices
à la carte “on the menu*”
French restaurants usually offer a menu with choices for each of the several courses at a fixed price (how to read a French menu). If you want something else (a side order), you order from the carte. *Note that menu is a false cognate in French and English.
à la minute “to the minute”
This term is used in restaurant kitchens for dishes which are cooked to order, rather than made ahead of time
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.
amour-propre “self love”
From Latin, “to open”
après-ski “after skiing”
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” social events.
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):
1. Adjective – appropriate, to the point: “That’s true, but it’s not apropos.”
2. Adverb – at an appropriate time, opportunely: “Fortunately, he arrived apropos.”
3. Adverb/Interjection – by the way, incidentally: “Apropos, what happened yesterday?”
4. 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.”
art déco “decorative art”
Short for art décoratif
art nouveau “new art”
Characterized by flowers, leaves, and flowing lines
A person assigned to a diplomatic post
au contraire “on the contrary”
Usually used playfully in English.
au fait “conversant, informed”
Au fait is used in British English to mean “familiar” or “conversant”: She’s not really au fait with my ideas.
au gratin “with gratings”
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 cheese.”
au jus “in the juice”
Served with the meat’s natural juices.
au naturel “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, naked.
au pair “at par”
A person who works for a family (cleaning and/or teaching the children) in exchange for room and board
aux trois crayons “with three crayons”
Drawing technique using three colors of chalk
avant-garde “before guard”
Innovative, especially in the arts
avoirdupois “goods of weight”
Originally spelled averdepois
bas-relief “low relief/design”
Sculpture that is only slightly more prominent than its background.
belle époque “beautiful era”
The golden age of art and culture in France in the early 20th century
bête noire “black beast”
Similar to a pet peeve: something that is particularly distasteful or difficult and to be avoided.
billet-doux “sweet note”
blond, blonde “fair-haired”
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.
bon appétit “good appetite”
The closest English equivalent is “Enjoy your meal.”
bon mot, bons mots “good word(s)”
Clever remark, witticism
bon ton “good tone”
Sophistication, etiquette, high society
bon vivant “good ‘liver'”
Someone who lives well, who knows how to enjoy life.
bon voyage “good trip”
English has “Have a good trip,” but Bon voyage is more elegant.
The correct French spelling is bric-à-brac. Note that bric and brac don’t actually mean anything in French; they are onomatopoeic.
brunette “small, dark-haired female”
The French word brun, dark-haired, is what English really means by “brunette.” The suffix –ette indicates that the subject is small and female.
café au lait “coffee with milk”
Same thing as the Spanish term café con leche
carte blanche “blank card”
Free hand, ability to do whatever you want/need
cause célèbre “famous cause”
A famous, controversial issue, trial, or case
The French word for the fruit gives us the English word for the color.
c’est la vie “that’s life”
Same meaning and usage in both languages
chacun à son goût “each one to his own taste”
This is the slightly twisted English version of the French expression à chacun son goût.
chaise longue “long chair”
In English, this is often mistakenly written as “chaise lounge” – which actually makes perfect sense.
chargé d’affaires “charged with business”
A substitute or replacement diplomat
chef d’œuvre “chief work”
cheval-de-frise “Frisian horse”
Barbed wire, spikes, or broken glass attached to wood or masonry and used to block access
cheval glace “horse mirror”
A long mirror set into a moveable frame
Chic sounds more chic than “stylish.”
cinéma vérité “cinema truth”
Unbiased, realistic documentary filmmaking
comme il faut “as it must”
The proper way, as it should be
cordon bleu “blue ribbon”
cordon sanitaire “sanitary line”
Quarantine, buffer zone for political or medical reasons.
coup de foudre “bolt of lightning”
Love at first sight
coup de grâce “mercy blow”
Deathblow, final blow, decisive stroke
coup d’état “state blow”
Overthrow of the government
crème brûlée “burnt cream”
Baked custard with carmelized crust
crème caramel “caramel cream”
Synonym of flan – custard lined with caramel
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”
crème fraîche “fresh cream”
This is a funny term. Despite its meaning, crème fraîche is in fact slightly fermented, thickened cream.
crêpe de Chine “Chinese crepe”
Type of silk
cri de cœur “cry of heart”
The correct way to say “heartfelt cry” in French is cri du cœur (literally, “cry of the heart”)
crime passionnel “passionate crime”
Crime of passion
critique “critical, judgment”
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.
cuisine “kitchen, food style”
In English, cuisine refers only to a particular type of food/cooking, such as French cuisine, Southern cuisine, etc.
cul-de-sac “bottom (butt) 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 début into society. Interestingly, this usage is not original in French; it was adopted back from English.
décolletage, décolleté “low neckline, lowered neckline”
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 tasting.
déjà vu “already seen”
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 original.
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 haven’t: a feeling of déjà vu = une impression de déjà vu.
demimonde “half world”
In French, it’s hyphenated: demi-monde. In English, there are two meanings:
1. A marginal or disrespectful group
2. Prostitutes and/or kept women
demitasse “half cup”
In French, it’s hyphenated: demi-tasse. Refers to a small cup of espresso or other strong coffee.
démodé “out of fashion”
Same meaning in both languages: outmoded, out of fashion
de rigueur “of rigueur”
Socially or culturally obligatory
dernier cri “last cry”
The newest fashion or trend
de trop “of too much”
Dieu et mon droit “God and my right”
Motto of the British monarch
double entendre “double hearing”
A word play or pun. For example, you’re looking at a field of sheep and you say “How are you (ewe)?”
droit du seigneur “right of the lord of the manor”
The feudal lord’s right to deflower his vassal’s bride
du jour “of the day”
“Soup du jour” is nothing more than an elegant-sounding version of “soup of the day.”
eau de Cologne “water from Cologne”
This is often cut down to simply “cologne” in English. Cologne is the French and English name for the German city Köln.
eau de toilette “toilet water”
Toilet here does not refer to a commode – see toilette, below. Eau de toilette is a very weak perfume.
embarras de richesse, richesses “embarrassement of wealth/richness”
Such an overwhelming amount of good fortune that it’s embarrassing or confusing
en banc “on the bench”
Legal: indicates that the entire membership of a court is in session.
en bloc “in a block”
In a group, all together
en brochette “on (a) skewer”
Also known by the Turkish name: shish kebab
A simple adverb in French, “encore” in English refers to an additional performance, usually requested with audience applause.
enfant terrible “terrible child”
Refers to a troublesome or embarrassing person within a group (of artists, thinkers, etc).
en garde “on guard”
Warning that one should be on his/her guard, ready for an attack (originally in fencing).
en masse “in mass”
In a group, all together
en passant “in passing”
in passing, by the way; (chess) the capturing of a pawn after a specific move
en prise “in grasp”
(chess) exposed to capture
en rapport “in agreement”
en route “on route”
On the way
en suite “in sequence”
Part of a set, together
entente cordiale “cordial agreement”
friendly agreements between countries, especially those signed in 1904 between France and the UK
entrez vous “come in”
English speakers often say this, but it’s wrong – the correct way to say “come in” in French is simply entrez.
esprit de corps “group spirit”
Similar to team spirit or morale
esprit d’escalier “stairway wit”
Thinking of an answer or comeback too late
fait accompli “done deed”
Fait accompli seems more fatalistic to me than done deed, which is so factual.
faux “false, fake”
I once saw an ad for “genuine faux pearls.” No worries that those pearls might be real, I guess – you were guaranteed fake ones. 🙂
faux pas “false step, trip”
Something that should not be done, a foolish mistake.
femme fatale “deadly woman”
An alluring, mysterious woman who seduces men into compromising situations
fiancé, fiancée “engaged person, betrothed”
Note that fiancé refers to a man and fiancée to a woman.
film noir “black movie”
Black is a literal reference to the stark black-and-white cinematography style, though films noirs tend to be figuratively dark as well (e.g., morbid, bleak, depressing, etc).
fin de siècle “end of the century”
Hyphenated in English, fin-de-siècle refers to the end of the 19th century.
fleur-de-lis, fleur-de-lys “flower of lily”
A type of iris or an emblem in the shape of an iris with three petals.
fleur de sel “flower of salt”
Very fine and expensive salt
foie gras “fat liver”
The liver of a force-fed goose, considered a delicacy
folie à deux “craziness for two”
Mental disorder which occurs simultaneously in two people with a close relationship or association.
force majeure “greater force”
Refers to superior/greater force, or to an unexpected or uncontrollable event, such as “an act of God” like a tornado or earthquake.
gamine “playful, little girl”
Refers to an impish or playful girl/woman.
gauche “left, awkward”
Tactless, lacking social grace
Used mostly in art and film – “I really like this genre…”
grand mal “great illness”
Severe epilepsy. Also see petit mal
haute couture “high sewing”
High-class, fancy (and expensive) clothing styles
haute cuisine “high cuisine”
High-class, fancy (and expensive) cooking or food
hors de combat “out of combat”
Out of action
hors d’œuvre “outside of work”
An appetizer. Œuvre here refers to the main work (course), so hors d’œuvre simply means something besides the main course.
idée fixe “set idea”
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
laissez-faire “let it be”
A policy of non-interference. Note the expression in French is laisser-faire.
maître d’, maître d’hôtel “master of, 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”
mardi gras “fat Tuesday”
Celebration before Lent
In English, indicates the day’s first showing of a movie or play. Can also refer to a midday romp with one’s lover.
ménage à trois “household of three”
mot juste “right word”
Exactly the right word or expression.
Used in genealogy to refer to a woman’s maiden name: Anne Miller née (or nee) Smith.
noblesse oblige “obligated nobility”
The idea that those who are noble are obliged to act noble.
nom de guerre “war name”
nom de plume “pen name”
This French phrase was coined by English speakers in imitation of nom de guerre.
nouveau riche “new rich”
Disparaging term for someone who has recently come into money.
nouvelle cuisine “new cuisine”
Cooking style developed in the 1960’s and 70’s that emphasized lightness and freshness.
objet d’art “art object”
Note that the French word objet does not have a c – you should never write “object d’art.
oh là là “oh dear”
Usually misspelled and mispronounced “ooh la la” in English.
papier mâché “mashed paper”
Used for art
par excellence “by excellence”
Quintessential, preeminent, the best of the best
pas de deux “step of two”
Dance with two people
Old-fashioned, out-of-date, past its prime
passe-partout “pass everywhere”
1. Master key
2. (Art) mat, paper, or tape used to frame a picture
peau de soie “skin of silk”
Soft, silky fabric with a dull finish
(law) lesser, minor
petite “small, short”
It may sound chic, but petite is simply the feminine French adjective meaning “short” or “small.”
petit four “little oven”
Small dessert, especially cake
petit mal “small illness”
Relatively mild epilepsy. Also see grand mal
petit point “little stitch”
Small stitch used in needlepoint.
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.
pied-à-terre “foot on ground”
A temporary or secondary place of residence.
Eyeglasses clipped to the nose
Plus ça change “More it changes”
The more things change (the more they stay the same)
potpourri “rotten pot”
A scented mixture of dried flowers and spices; a miscellaneous group or collection
prêt-à-porter “ready to wear”
Originally referred to clothing, now sometimes used for food.
Someone whose training is sponsored by an influential person.
raison d’être “reason for being”
Purpose, justification for existing
rendez-vous “go to”
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).
repartee “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
roche moutonnée “rolled rock”
Mound of bedrock smoothed and rounded by erosion. Incidentally, mouton means “sheep.”
roman à clés “novel with keys”
Novel with real people appearing as fictional characters
roman-fleuve “novel river”
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.
RSVP “respond please”
This abbreviation stands for Répondez, s’il vous plaît, which means that “Please RSVP” is redundant.
sang-froid “cold blood”
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.
savoir-faire “knowing how to do”
Synonymous with tact or social grace.
savoir-vivre “to know how to live”
soi-disant “self saying”
What one claims about oneself; so-called, alleged
soigné “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 soup.
souvenir “memory, keepsake”
succès d’estime “success of estime”
Important but unpopular success or achievement
succès fou “crazy success”
tableau vivant “living picture”
A scene made up of silent, motionless actors
table d’hôte “host table”
1. A table for all guests to sit together
2. A fixed-price meal with multiple courses
tête-à-tête “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.
tout de suite “right away”
Due to the silent e in de, this is often misspelled “toot sweet” in English.
trompe l’œil “trick the eye”
A painting style which uses perspective to trick the eye into thinking it is real. In French, trompe l’œil can also refer in general to artifice and trickery.
vieux jeu “old game”
vis-à-vis (de) “face to face”
In French, when vis-à-vis precedes a noun and means facing, next to, or towards, it must be followed by the preposition de. In English it means “compared to” or “in relation with”: vis-à-vis this decision => vis-à-vis de cette décision.
vive la France “(long) live France”
Essentially the French equivalent of saying “God bless America.” Note that it’s vive la France; “viva” is Spanish, not French.
Voilà ! “There it is!”
Nearly every time I see this in English, it is misspelled as “voilá” or “violà.”
vol-au-vent “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.
3 thoughts on “French words and expressions commonly used in English”
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