Do you love everything about French words?
Does it secretly thrill you to use French words in English?
This means that those who decide to learn French start off with a pretty great advantage!
Maybe you’d like to know what these words originally meant in French?
Many words have migrated from language to language and adopted connotations, some from the original language and some from the new language. These connotations often give the words a totally different meaning and it can be interesting to go back to the original literal translation to see how much the words have changed.
All of the words and phrases in this post have been selected for their linguistically interesting details as well as for being words we frequently use in English. Here are some suggestions to help you learn these phrases, and to learn more advanced French in the process:
- Grab some pens and get doodling. Make yourself little doodles on index cards to go with each of the words. Then you can grab these to refresh yourself regularly. The bright colors and doodles will help you associate the word with its interesting facts and its translation.
- Bring them into conversation. Whenever someone uses one of these words, you could mention its meaning and any interesting facts. Language fans will be impressed and it could even lead to a conversation where you find out about other interesting borrowed words.
- Use them with natives. Be careful to remember the differences in uses and make sure you drop these into French conversation. It may seem a little weird at first, but you’ll soon get used to it. Just beware of your French accent when using these words in English again to avoid strange looks!
15 French Words We Use in English That Are Totally À La Mode
1. Agent Provocateur
Literally “inciting agent” in French, this is someone who infiltrates a group and coerces them into doing something illegal. Many governments still use these and so this phrase has a double meaning.
In the UK especially, it implies the art of seduction. There’s even a lingerie brand of the same name that acts as a different kind of agent provocateur!
C’est un agent provocateur pour le gouvernement. (He’s an inciting agent for the government.)
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 with an implied meaning that it’s smallish, like a bijou champagne bar. Remember that the French may think it quite odd for you to describe something as bijou in this way if you aren’t talking about a jewel, as it has maintained its original meaning in France.
Je vais vous achater un bijou! (I will buy you a jewel/item of jewelry!)
3. Carte blanche
In English it means to give someone the opportunity to do whatever they want to do, surrendering to their whim. Its literal translation in French is “white card” because when armies surrendered they used to pass a white card to the other army for them to write their terms of surrender on.
The French use this phrase the same way as we do, so you don’t have to worry about this one!
Il avait carte blanche. (He had the chance to do whatever he wanted.)
4. Eau de toilette
This translates literally to “toilet water.” Nice! 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.)
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.)
6. 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 “femme fatale” in English.
Regardez, c’est une femme fatale! (Look, she’s a femme fatale!)
7. 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. Again, another phrase that’s far more exciting in French than when translated!
Elle avait un certain je ne sais quoi. (She had a certain indescribable but attractive quality.)
8. Nom de plume
Literally means “pen name” and is used when a writer has a different name to write under than their actual name.
This one does what it says on the tin, but the interesting fact is that plume is the French word for feather. It goes back to when quills were used as pens, and still remains in some phrases. It’s also frequently used in the English language as a more eloquent way of saying “pen name.”
Son nom de plume est Richard Castle. (His pen name is Richard Castle.)
Literally the plume on a hat. The other meaning of this comes from Henri IV whose flamboyance led to it being the word for extreme flair. King Henri’s courage and bravery led to this word also meaning a recklessly brave quality in people. This is used more in French than it is in the English language.
Il a du panache. (He has flair.)
Literally translates “to recount” and is another example of a regular French word becoming a very elegant word in English. We use it to describe people who have a gift for telling enchanting stories and keeping people’s attention. In French, un conteur is a more apt description of a storyteller with talent.
C’est un raconteur et poète. (He’s a storyteller and poet.)
11. À la mode
Means “of the fashion” and is a way of describing something trendy right now. It means this on both sides of the Channel. Only in the US does it 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!)
Literally means “mouth amuser” which is entertaining in itself! These are tiny dishes that a chef serves before a meal and this term has transferred through gastronomy straight from French to English. You can use this in French exactly as you would in English. The French also have a more colloquial term, amuse-gueule.
Mmmm, ces amuse-bouche sont délicieux. (Mmmm, these amuse-bouche are delicious.)
13. Cordon bleu
Translates to “blue ribbon.” This was given to Bourbon knights of the highest order. It has since transferred to cooking and represents a very good cook, with many training institutions all over the world named le cordon bleu. In English we use this phrase to refer to a common dish where breaded chicken is cooked with ham and cheese on top or wrapped within it.
Être un cordon bleu. (To be a really good chef.)
Literally meaning “left” in French, this is often used in English to mean social awkwardness. It may have gotten this meaning as everything is more awkward for left-handed people in a right-handed world. Be careful, though, because its meaning could be easily misconstrued in French!
Il est un peu gauche. (He is a little awkward.)
15. La bête noire
This is a phrase that means your worst fear or enemy. In English it has come to mean more of a pet peeve. It literally means “black beast, ” which sounds a little strange but also makes sense.
C’est ma bête noire. (It’s my worst fear.)
So, now that you’ve seen these areas of overlap, which language do you think wins at being the most elegant and sophisticated?
Let us know!
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