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11 English Words That Are Surprisingly Borrowed from French

Not sure what a particular word is in French?

Just say it with a French accent and see if the locals understand.

Sure, it may not be the most comprehensive way of learning, but it works more often than you might think.

Although English retains much in the way of Germanic influence, a surprising amount of its vocabulary has been taken from words of French origin.

While there are some that we are all well aware of, there are more that don’t even sound French!

The further you go down the French rabbit hole, the more instances of ties between the two languages you’ll notice cropping up.

Today, we’re going to look at some of these less likely-looking English words of French origin.

Not only will this give you valuable insight into how closely the two languages are related, but it will help grow and reinforce your existing French vocabulary.

But first, let’s look at why there’s so much shared history between the two languages, and what this means for learners.
 


 
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Why Are There So Many Similarities Between English and French?

We might not always feel like there are major links between the French and English languages, but in fact, a huge number of the words we use today are of French origin!

That means that whenever we make a comment or express ourselves in some way, we’re tapping into years of French linguistics.

Most of the words of French origin we use today were brought over during the Norman conquest of England in 1066. After England was taken over by the French, the country fell under significant influence from the leader at the time, William the Conqueror. While the French later left the country for warmer climes, much of their language stuck around.

How Learning Which English Words Were Borrowed from French Can Aid Learning

You’ll find you already know many French words

Similarities between French and English can really play to your advantage, and once you realize how many words cross over, you may notice that you know a great deal of French already! Often, spellings between English and French words are the main difference, and as long as you apply a French accent, you can successfully communicate a word in French to a native. Having an arsenal of words you already know does wonders for your confidence and will help you to progress much more rapidly.

Translation becomes easier

The similarities work in the opposite way, too. It can be very easy to guess what a word means in French when it holds so many similarities to its English counterpart. This is especially handy when reading and writing, as seeing a word before you hear it spoken is often the easiest way to recognize what its English equivalent might be. Of course, you need to remember to be careful of faux amis—not all words that look the same mean the same thing!

Cognates are simple to remember

Often, learners have a specific set of French words that we use time and again. It can be tricky to get ourselves out of the habit. Many adjectives in French and English are very close in spelling and simply doing your research on cognates is enough to help you learn new words, remember them and express yourself more eloquently.

We all have our favorite French origin words in English, and there are many English words that just “look” French, but there are also many French origin words that are likely to slip by unnoticed.

So to give you a leg up on learning and to show you exactly how well-hidden the links between French and English can be, we’re going to explore some similar-origin words you may be prone to miss.

These words might appear to be completely English, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that they’re not at all what they seem.

11 English Words That Are Surprisingly Borrowed from French

1. Money

While it might look English and sound English, “money” is actually a word that was used in France in various other versions before it made its way over to England and beyond. It first made its way into the English-speaking world by replacing the Middle English word schat (money/treasure).

The word monnaie is still used in French today, normally to describe cash or loose change.

2. Denim

Unlike many other words from France, “denim” has a more modern history, and once you know about this one, you’ll probably not forget it in a hurry! Before Levi Strauss made jeans the item to own, the material was constructed in the French town of Nîmes. The word actually comes from de Nîmes (from Nîmes)!

Looking into the history of a word like this shines a light on cultural and geographical developments of which many of us might not be aware. It shows how, by paying closer attention to the words we use, we can learn a huge amount about the way languages change over time.

3. Advice

Modern day French has the word avis (opinion), which you may already be aware of. In Old French, the phrase ce m’est a vis was originally used to mean “in my view.”

While the French still say à mon avis in order to communicate a similar idea, the English took the last word only, transforming it to “advice.”

4. Origin

Ironically, “origin” is not originally English! Taken from the old Latin word origo, the word was altered in French to be pronounced as origine. Since the Old French word origine made its way to Britain, the word has remained largely unchanged in meaning and form.

5. Honesty

The French word for honesty, honnêteté, might be a mouthful, but at least the spelling is similar to the English word. The Old French word, honesté, is even closer.

6. Habit

The modern French word for having a “habit” is habitude. Although that looks similar, our word here is related to the French word “habit” (clothing). In fact, in English, you can still use the word “habit” to refer to a nun’s clothing. In Latin, the word habitus used to refer to clothing, or a person’s state of appearance in general.

The Latin habeō could be used to mean either “to have” or “to hold,” which, while seemingly disconnected, may point to the word’s modern day meaning. It could have been believed that having ownership over something resulted in regular use, and thus the word may have begun to take on its current definition.

7. Liberal

While we might associate being socially liberal, or a liberal political party, with the English-speaking world, in Old French, the same word was most probably used to describe something that was befitting a free-thinking person. It’s originally from the Latin liberalis, which also had the connotation of “generous.”

8. Modern

While you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the French word moderne was taken from the English, the opposite is actually true. This one was lifted from the Middle French word moderne, which appeared by way of Latin.

9. Sport

Again, you might assume the French word sport was lifted from the English. But its journey was a bit more complex than that! It started off with the Old French word desporter, which was used to describe something you took pleasure in doing. It came into English as “disport,” which eventually became just “sport.” In the early 19th century, French borrowed the word back from English. From French, to English, back to French!

10. Utensil

Although “utensil” sounds as if it might have Germanic origins, that’s not the case. The Old French word utensile came from the Latin ūtensilis, meaning “useful.” The modern French word is ustensile. The s cropped in probably because of a comparison with the word usersince utensils are objects you use to do things!

The basic meaning of the word might not have changed a great deal from its Latin origins, but obviously the way in which it’s used has altered quite a bit. Changes like this show how a word can be changed according to the purpose it needs to serve in society, and how people want to use it at any given time.

11. War

Although the French word guerre (war) might look completely different from the English “war,” they may be more closely related than you thought. Like the Cornish in the United Kingdom, the ancient cultures of the northern Breton region had their own language, which differed hugely from Old French.

The Old North French word for war, werrelooks much more similar to English than the current French guerre. It’s therefore possible that in this case it was Breton French that influenced English.

 

Many very English-sounding words are merely altered versions of their French origins.

Considering the proximity of the two countries, an overlap of the two languages was probably an inevitability.

Thanks to this, there’s more shared vocabulary than you may have realized, and it’s not all so obvious.

The next time you talk to someone in English, pay attention.

You’re probably using a large number of French words without even realizing it!

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