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French Words and Expressions in English

Learn the true meanings of French words and expressions commonly used in English

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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. When you've read through them all, be sure to see how well you do on the quiz.

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 française   "in the French manner"
   Describes anything done the French way

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.

allée   "alley, avenue"
   A path or walkway lined with trees

amour-propre   "self love"
   Self respect

apéritif   "cocktail"
   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

attaché   "attached"
   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, but it has other meanings in French.

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.

BCBG   "good style, good sort"
   Preppy or posh, short for bon chic, bon genre.

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"
   Love letter

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.

bric-a-brac
   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

cerise   "cherry"
   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"
   Masterpiece

cherchez la femme   "look for the woman"
   Same problem as always

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
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