French Words in English: 35 Words You Thought Were English… But Are Actually French
Did you know that you were already semi-French before actually deciding to learn the language?
At least 29 percent of the English language derives from “le français,” claiming French as the English language’s biggest influence—but wait, it gets better.
While a majority of English words with French roots have morphed, changing spelling and sound, there are endless everyday words we use in English that have remained purely French.
Here are 35 entirely French words that we use in English.
- 1. À la Carte
- 2. À la Mode
- 3. Attaché
- 4. Avant-Garde
- 5. Bijou
- 6. Bon Voyage
- 7. Bureau
- 8. Carte Blanche
- 9. Chic
- 10. Cliché
- 11. Connoisseur
- 12. Cordon-Bleu
- 13. Coup de grâce
- 14. Cul-de-Sac
- 15. Débris
- 16. Déjà Vu
- 17. Eau de Toilette
- 18. Encore
- 19. En Route
- 20. Exposé
- 21. Façade
- 22. Faux pas
- 23. Femme Fatale
- 24. Fiancé
- 25. Gauche
- 26. Hors-d’œuvre
- 27. Je Ne Sais Quoi
- 28. Laisser faire
- 29. Matinée
- 30. Mirage
- 31. Pot-pourri
- 32. Risqué
- 33. R.S.V.P
- 34. Souvenir
- 35. Touché
- Why We Use French Words in English
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1. À la Carte
Meaning “according to a menu” in French, this phrase refers to choosing individual items off a menu in both languages.
Je voudrais des frites à la carte. (I would like an order of fries on their own.)
2. À la Mode
This means “of the fashion” in French and is a way of describing something trendy right now.
In the US you will also see it used to indicate that a dish is served with ice cream. This must have hopped languages when serving pastry and vanilla ice cream was very fashionable in France.
C’est très à la mode ! (It’s very fashionable!)
While this one literally means “attached” in French, English uses it to refer to someone who works for an ambassador.
Elle est attachée à l’ambassadeur du Canada. (She’s an attaché* to the Canadian ambassador.)
*The literal translation is “she is attached to the ambassador”
“Before guard” or “advance guard” are the literal translations of this French phrase.
English speakers know it as an innovative movement in the arts, usually pertaining to artists who are “advanced” in their fields.
The artistic meaning holds in French, but it can also mean the “front line.”
Andy Warhol était un artiste de l’avant-garde. (Andy Warhol was an avant-garde artist)
The French word for a small gem or jewel, bijou has adopted a completely different meaning in the English language.
Amongst us English speakers, it’s considered a classy way to describe something stylish while implying that it’s small, like a bijou champagne bar.
Je vais vous acheter un bijou ! (I will buy you a jewel/item of jewelry!)
6. Bon Voyage
I think we’ve all heard this one when leaving on a trip of some kind. The French use this phrase to wish someone a “good trip,” and we use it the same way in English.
Bon voyage ! Tu vas me manquer ! (Have a good trip! I will miss you!)
While the French version of this word refers to a physical desk, it also refers to an office, which is how English uses it.
The English “bureau” tends to be used for more political or governmental offices, such as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation).
Le bureau des finances a refusé mon prêt. (The financial office denied my loan.)
8. Carte Blanche
In English, this means to give someone the opportunity to do whatever they want to do, surrendering to their whim.
The literal translation is “white card” because when armies surrendered they would pass a white card to the enemy for them to write their terms of surrender on.
Nowadays, the French use this phrase the same way as we do!
Il avait carte blanche. (He had the chance to do whatever he wanted.)
French fashion is known for its simple elegance. In French, someone who is chic is well-dressed.
Now we use the same word in English when we see something that resembles that French style of casual class.
Elle est très chic. (She is so well-dressed.)
In French, this word refers to something that has become so common that it’s overrated. The meaning is the same in English.
Leur mariage était tellement cliché. (Their wedding was so cliché.)
A connoisseur is someone who is very knowledgeable about something—and we use it to mean the same thing in English.
However it’s worth noting that connoisseur is outdated and rarely used in French these days, so you’ll most likely hear connaisseur or connaisseuse (the masculine and feminine forms, respectively) instead.
Il est un connoisseur de vin. (He is a wine connoisseur.)
This literally means “blue ribbon,” and was once given to Bourbon knights of the highest order as a token of appreciation.
It has since changed meaning in French: it either refers to a cook of the highest standard, or a common dish where breaded chicken is cooked with ham and cheese.
In English, we use this phrase only to refer to the dish.
Je veux être un cordon-bleu. (I want to be a really good chef.)
13. Coup de grâce
During wartime, coup de grâce meant a person’s “blow of mercy” from a sword or rifle in a forgiving manner.
Nowadays, both French and English use coup de grâce as a figure of speech to describe a final straw, sort of like “the cherry on top.”
Il n’y avait même pas de moutarde dans mon sandwich, c’était le coup de grâce ! (There wasn’t even mustard in my sandwich, it was the coup de grâce!)
“Butt of a bag,” meaning “bottom of the bag,” is the literal translation of cul-de-sac, though the original meaning has nothing to do with how English or French speakers actually use the phrase.
Cul-de-sac, mostly seen in real-estate writing, is an elegant English way to say the “dead end” of a road. The same phrase is seen as more informal in French.
Cette rue menait à un cul-de-sac. (This road has lead to a dead end.)
You may not have ever thought of this word as being super French, but it certainly is! Both French and English use this word to refer to broken pieces of material.
La bombe a tout transformé en débris. (The bomb turned everything into debris.)
16. Déjà Vu
“Already seen,” is the English translation of the French phrase we associate with that weird feeling of reliving a past experience.
In France you’ll hear this word on a daily basis, because it’s used to express “having re-seen” a person, place or things, not in another life or dimension. In other words, it’s a factual encounter.
The French do believe in the weird phenomenon, but have a different way of spelling it (with a hyphen), déjà-vu. There is no difference in pronunciation though, which is why context is always key!
As-tu déjà vu ce film ? (Have you “already seen” this film?)
J’ai eu un sentiment déjà-vu. (I had [a feeling of] déjà vu.)
17. Eau de Toilette
This translates literally to “toilet water.” However, it doesn’t mean this at all.
Toilette was the word for a dressing table cover and came to be associated with washing and dressing. You may already know that eau de toilette is a light perfume used for washing/dressing.
It now means the same thing in English and French, so you can rest assured that you won’t be sold toilet water at the local grand magasin (department store).
J’ai acheté une bonne eau de toilette. (I bought a good eau de toilette.)
For English speakers, encore is only related to show biz, shouted when you want a performer to return to the stage and continue the show.
In French, encore is used much more commonly as it literally means “again” or “another. “Yet,” “still” or “even” are more intricate translations. “Pas encore,” “not yet,” is commonly used too.
Il y a encore du riz. (There’s still rice left)
Ce n’est pas encore l’heure. (It’s not time yet.)
The best way to see how these words are used differently in French and English is to hear how French flows when spoken by a native.
To do this you can try checking out videos on YouTube, or watching authentic French videos on FluentU.
The bite-sized clips on this language learning platform feature native speakers using the language naturally, in a variety of different situations—think news reports, music videos and inspiring talks.
The videos also come with interactive subtitles that will help you understand more about how words are used and when. You can even add them to flashcards or quiz yourself on them later.
Plus, if you prefer learning on the go, you can download FluentU on iOS and Android.
19. En Route
This literally means that something is “on the way” and will probably be used in reference to a delivery or someone driving somewhere.
Votre paquet est en route. (Your package is on the way.)
This literally translates to “exposed.” As a noun, it was originally used to mean an explanation that exposed the reasoning of a decision.
It now means an in-depth tabloid story exposing something scandalous about a public figure. This word means the same thing in France as well.
C’était un exposé sur la star qui avait fait la carrière de Hannah. (It was a tabloid scandal of the star that made Hannah’s career.)
Façade has multiple uses. For one, it’s a fancy word in English for telling someone they’re “fake,” or more nicely, “putting up a front.”
“Frontage” or “face” is the literal English translation of this French word, but more commonly, in both English and French, façade is the “front” or “side” of a building.
La façade de cette maison est ancienne. (The façade of this house is old.)
22. Faux pas
This literally translates to “misstep.” Both languages use it to refer to something that isn’t generally acceptable in the social realm.
Crier dans une bibliothèque est un faux pas. (Screaming in the library is a faux pas.)
23. Femme Fatale
Used to describe a seductive woman with a dangerous streak, this is also one of those terms that’s used in English the same way as in French.
It translates literally to “deadly woman.” When you think about it, that’s quite boring compared to the glamour and sass we imply when we use the term in English.
Regardez, c’est une femme fatale ! (Look, she’s a femme fatale!)
Yes, this is another famous French word that slips by many of us. There is no translation since fiancé is, well, a fiancé.
Je vous présente mon fiancé. (I introduce you to my fiancé.)
Literally meaning “left” in French, this is often used in English to mean social awkwardness.
It may have gotten this meaning from how everything is more awkward for left-handed people in a right-handed world.
Il est un peu gauche. (He is a little awkward.)
“Out of work” is the literal translation of this phrase, as hors d’œuvre were once served out of the work of art (the main course) and thus, hors d’œuvre was born.
Now, both languages use this to refer to small dishes that come before a main course such as deviled eggs, cheese and crackers, etc.
Les hors-d’œuvre étaient vraiment délicieux. (The hors d’oeuvres were very delicious.)
27. Je Ne Sais Quoi
This French phrase is often translated as “that certain something” but literally translates into “I don’t know what.”
This is a universal phrase for a quality that’s hard to describe but very attractive.
Elle avait un certain je ne sais quoi. (She had a certain indescribable but attractive quality.)
28. Laisser faire
You’ll usually hear this one used to describe a management or coaching style. It literally means “let it happen” and demonstrates a relaxed, “hands-off” kind of attitude.
Il préfère laisser faire ses employés. (He prefers to be hands-off with his employees.)
On the French side, matinée means “morning,” or the “entire morning” (from sunrise to noon).
In English, this word usually refers to the first showing of a movie or show that takes place in the morning.
While the French might also have their matinée movie deals, for them it refers to the “first showing” in the afternoon, not morning.
Une matinée de ballet. (An afternoon performance of ballet.)
To “look at” or “wonder at” is the literal translation of this French word. It also means to “mirror ” or “admire,” hence why English speakers use mirage to define a visual wish or desire.
J’ai cru voir une île; c’était un mirage. (I thought I saw an island; it was a mirage.)
Pot-pourri translated into English is “rotten pot.” In French it’s spelled pot-pourri or pot pourri, and has the same meaning as its English counterpart: fragranced dried flower, fruits and herbs used to get rid of bad odors.
J’ai acheté ce pot-pourri pour la salle de bain. (I bought this potpourri for the bathroom.)
In English, risqué takes an improper, indecent tone that’s sexually suggestive.
Risqué [rees-key] or risque [ri-skey], the latter sounding similar to how we say “risk” in English, are the two pronunciations in French which have the same and only meaning of “risk” in English.
Risqué may have moved into English because of Moulin Rouge, cabarets, and burlesque shows, but in French it only means “risk:”
Il y a un risque d’avalanche. (There’s risk of an avalanche.)
You’ve been invited to countless weddings, showers and parties your whole life, but did you ever think about what R.S.V.P stands for? In case you never did, it’s an original French acronym:
Répondez s’il vous plaît.
This acronym in English means “Respond If It Pleases You” or “Respond If You Please.”
If you’re returning from an amazing trip, you’ll no doubt bring back an amazing gift for yourself or friends, otherwise known as a souvenir—a tiny piece of memorabilia.
For English speakers, a souvenir is tangible, physical, and visible. For the French, the verb souvenir also means to “remember” or “recall.”
Je me souviens. (I remember.)
Peux-tu acheter un souvenir pour moi ? (Can you buy a souvenir for me?)
English speakers use this French phrase after a smart aleck remark or quick, witty response. In fencing (or any battling), touché can also be a “hit.”
In French it simply means to “touch,” which is written similarly, but with no hidden meaning as we’ve created.
As-tu déjà touché un serpent ? (Have you ever touched a snake?)
Touché ! (You’re on!)
Why We Use French Words in English
As French evolved from old Gaulish and Latin into what it is today, it became ever more universal. Even before modern borders were established, the French language was very dominant in the area of modern day England.
And while English evolved and became more of its own language, at the same time it also took on quite a bit of French in its formation.
Many English words at least have a French base, if not being the same word entirely. In fact, it’s estimated that there are over 7,000 French words used in English!
Today with the help of technology, the world is becoming more and more globalized—meaning different languages and cultures are interacting with each other as they never could before.
This has led to an inevitable exchange of words and phrases between many languages. Considering that French and English are considered some of the most universal languages, it’s no surprise that they exchange words.
And there you have it, a few French phrases that are officially part of the English language.
Can you think of any more?
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)