French Words and Expressions Used in English

Bastille Day on the 14th July in Paris, taken on the Pont de la Concorde

Just in time for Bastille Day, our French e-Tutor Sev shares some French words you probably already know if you speak English!

Every language accepts in its vocabulary a number foreign words and expressions, often using them in their original meaning. It is always fascinating to contemplate the ‘limits’ of a language to signify things but especially thoughts, and why these foreign words were kept in their original form, as if surrendering willingly to the fact that they are a better expression than an equivalent.

At some point, if those words force themselves into everyday use because of the strong influence of a culture, some of these words become fully integrated after undergoing some degree of transformation; that is the case today in French with a number of English terms, especially pertaining to internet technology.

Here is a collection of French words commonly used today in both French and English language, with the same meaning:

avant-garde (ah-vah(n)-gahr-d(uh)
Originally a military term for ‘vanguard’, the first guard on the frontline. In French used especially in the Arts.

carte blanche (kahr-tuh blahn-sh(uh))
lit. ‘white card’, as in a blank check), usually meaning granting unlimited authority. In French, generally used with the verb ‘donner’(to give).

cliché (m.) (klee-sheh)
The term used to refer to a printer’s block used to reproduce type (now stereotype.

crème (f.) de la crème (kraym duh lah kraym)
lit. ‘cream of the cream’. A sophisticated, classy synonym in French is the latin expression ‘le nec plus ultra’. Also see ‘par excellence’.

cul (m.)-de-sac (kew-duh-sahk)
Dating from 14th century French, lit. ‘bottom of sack’, meaning a dead end (street). French synonyms include ‘impasse’ (f.) and ‘voie (f.) sans issue’ (lit. way without exit).

déjà vu (deh-zhah vew)
lit. “already seen”. In French, generally used with ‘une impression de’ (a feeling of).

faux pas (m.) (foh pah)
lit. “false step”, an expression describing not following the etiquette. In French it is used with the verb ‘faire’ (un faux-pas).

je ne sais quoi (zhuh nuh say kwah)
lit. “I-don’t-know-what”. Used to convey the indescribable or indefinable character of something in an object or a person. In French, it is typically preceded by ‘un certain’ (a certain).

liaison (f.) (lyay-soh(n)
In French it means a ‘bond’, which can describe several things, like a relationship, an affair, a link, a connection, or a chemical bond.

par excellence (pahr ayk-seh-lah(n)-s(uh))
lit. ‘by excellence’, meaning the ultimate or quintessential.

quel dommage (kehl doh-mah-zh(uh))
Meaning ‘What a pity’, the expression can be used as a sarcasm. In French, it could also be found as ‘C’est dommage’ (It’s too bad). In an other context, ‘Dommage’ means ‘damage’ or ‘compensation’.

raison (f.) d’être (ray-soh(n) day-tr(uh)
lit. ‘reason for being’. Used to describe what gives meaning, justification or purpose of someone or something’s existence.

sauté (soh-teh)
lit. ‘jumped’. From the verb ‘sauter’ (to jump). It is used either as an adjective or a noun.

savoir-faire (m.) (sah-vwahr fayr)
lit. ‘know do’; meaning ‘know how’, to describe the competence or the craft of a person or a group of persons.

trompe-l’œil (m.) (troh(m)p luh-y(uh))
lit. ‘trick/deceive the eye’. A term used in art of architecture to point out photographic realism technique using an optical illusion of perspective. Can be used preceded by ‘en’ (in).

vis-à-vis (vee-zah-vee)
lit. ‘face to face’. Meaning ‘regarding’ or ‘concerning’. In French, it is then followed by ‘de’  It is also a real estate term (lack of privacy because of windows in neighbors’ sight).

Et voilà ! (eh vwah-lah)
lit. ‘see there’; in French, it is used to announce something is completed or done with success, with a feeling of satisfaction or pride, in front of others.

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