A Beginner’s List of English Expressions from French

Quite a bit of English came from French. Oh, most of it happened a long, long time ago – which means that many of the words and phrases changed spelling and/or pronunciation way before our time. It happened so long ago, in fact, that manny of us don’t even realize that things we say were once (or still are) French.

Which means, of course, we might recognize some of them if we hear them but not if they’re written. Here’s a starting list of common English expressions that originally came from French

  • au contraire: on the contrary (this has a very conversational tone)
  • avant-garde: new, unusual, and/or experimental (often in the arts)
  • bon appétit: a phrase said to someone about to eat to wish him/her a good meal
  • bon voyage: a phrase said to someone leaving, wishing a good journey (sometime used tongue-in-cheek)
  • carte blanche: permission/freedom to do whatever you please (like a blank check)
  • c’est la vie: that’s life; such is life (said with a sigh or a shrug)
  • c’est magnifique: it’s magnificient! (a general compliment; in dialogue for an American character, it can add an impression of pretention, depending on use)
  • coup de grâce: a mercy blow; the act of killing an animal or person out of mercy (generally a creature who is slowly and painfully dying already)
  • coup d’état: 1. a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power 2. a powerful move or action (usually in terms of strategy)
  • crème de la crème: the very best of something
  • déjà vu: a feeling of familiarity as if what just happened has also happened before (A.K.A. a glitch in Matrix)
  • entre nous: between us (as in, “just between us” or “Psst! It’s a secret!”)
  • esprit de corps: a group’s shared feelings of pride, loyalty, and fellowship
  • et voilà: there we are (said in such moments as when a magician reveals a trick)
  • fait accompli: an unchangeable fate; fact that someone must accept
  • faux pas: a social blunder; an embarrassing action or statement
  • femme fatale: a sexy female; a seducer of men (there’s an implication that the seduction will lead to a man’s downfall…)
  • haute couture: related to high fashion, especially clothing
  • hors d’œuvre: an appetizer or small snack-like dish (apparently, this is not what it means in France)
  • joie de vivre: strong enjoyment of life
  • laissez-faire: a policy of uninvolvement/letting things take their natural course (the original theory behind capitalism)
  • ménage à trois: a love affair involving 3 people
  • nom de plume: a pen name; a name someone uses only to publish under
  • nouveau riche: new rich (upstarts without class – or that’s the connation when the old rich use the term)
  • pièce de rèsistance: the most important or impressive part (the part you save for last)
  • la petite mort: an orgasm (literally, “the little death”)
  • raison de’être: reason or purpose for existence (is it ironic that this came next?)
  • répondez s’il vous plaît (RSVP): please, respond
  • tête-à-tête: a private conversation between two people
  • tour de force / tour-de-force: a show-off move; something accomplished through great skill
  • vis-à-vis: in regards to

Don’t worry – there’s more where these came from! This list barely dips your toe in the water of previously French expressions now adapted to English (especially the food ones), but it’s a decent start. Oh, and interesting fact: most of these fancy phrases are used in Disney movies (I told you there were a lot more two-dollar words in Disney movies than the 10 I mentioned before!).

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