Business Language Services Common English phrases of French origin

For many Brits, French seems just a distant memory from schooldays, but you may be surprised to realise that you know a lot more of the language than you think. There are hundreds of phrases used in the English language, and officially accepted into our vocabulary, which actually stem from French. Below are some examples.


English phrases influenced by French

  • When we sit down for a tasty meal, we don’t wish each other a ‘good appetite’ but rather ‘bon appetit’.
  • Experimental or innovative works are known as being ‘avant-garde’, not ‘advance guards’.
  • A private conversation between two individuals may well be introduced as a ‘tête-à-tête’, but not a ‘head to head’, which has different connotations.
  • In this country, if you live on a dead-end residential street, you live on a close, or a ‘cul-de-sac’ – literally, the ‘bottom of a bag’.
  • A kids’ pastime involving glue-soaked newspaper left to harden is referred to as ‘papier-mâché’, or ‘chewed paper’.
  • When we want to relax and put our feet up, we need more than just a standard chair, but perhaps not quite a settee; we need a ‘long chair’ – a ‘chaise longue’.
  • That feeling of familiarity, when we experience a moment in time that we’re convinced we have ‘already seen’, is usually described as ‘déjà vu’.
  • A foreign, young, live-in, part-time nanny and domestic help is called an ‘au pair’, from the French meaning ‘equal to’.
  • When a writer uses a pseudonym, it is known as a ‘pen name’, but just as commonly a ‘nom de plume’.
  • A selection of snacks served with drinks before a meal are called ‘hors d’œuvre’. The literal translation from the French would be ‘outside of the work’.
  • Collections of curios to display as ornaments are commonly referred to as ‘bric-a-brac’, originating from the French meaning ‘random’.
  • When there’s something about something that sets it apart from the rest, but you can’t quite put your finger on it, these days we might say it has the X factor, but the perfect phrase to use would be the ‘je ne sais quoi’. It sounds a bit more sophisticated than just ‘I don’t know what’!

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