The use of French phrases in English

Published 5th February 2013
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In English we use plenty of French phrases, but do we use them in the same way as the French?

Every language is guilty of borrowing words from other languages, but English borrows more words and phrases from French than it does from any other language.

In this blog, we’re going to look at some common French phrases and the ways they are used in the French and English languages.

Let’s start with déjà vu, which translates into English is ‘already seen’. In English, we use this expression when a place or situation seems familiar even though we’ve never experienced it before.  In French however, déjà vu refers to something which seems familiar because it has been experienced before.

The phrase faux pas translates into English as ‘misstep’, and is commonly used in English to refer to a mistake or a blunder. In French, the expression has two uses; one literal use for when you lose your balance and another which is the same as the English.

Touché is the past participle of the French verb toucher, meaning ‘to touch’. In its original context it was used to acknowledge a hit in fencing. We now use it in English to acknowledge when a good or witty point has been made in an argument.

Then we come to the pièce de résistance! This term was originally used in French to refer to the largest, most substantial part of a meal. In English we use this term more generally to refer to a highlight or showpiece of anything.

In English, many French words and phrases have been introduced to add certain exclusivity when talking about fashion.  When someone mentions haute couture, you immediately know that they’re not talking about ‘off the rack’ clothes from a high street retailer! Both in French and English, haute couture refers to made to measure clothing made from the highest quality materials by highly experienced seamstresses. Another example is lingerie, which is used in English to refer to alluring women’s underwear. In French however, the word lingerie refers to underwear in general, male or female.  Another French word you’ll hear a lot is boutique, which translates into English as ‘shop’. In English we wouldn’t call any old shop a boutique, instead we would use it to talk about small, independent shops that sell elite items.

The same applies when talking about food, French phrases are more commonly used than English ones in resa-la-carte-menutaurants in the UK. One of the most common of these is à la carte, which refers to items on a menu which are individually priced, as opposed to a set menu. Another common term is apéritif, which is used to describe an alcoholic drink offered before a meal. You’ll also often see the word entrée in English restaurants, which is another word for starter, or first course.

These are just a few of many French expressions we use in English. What foreign expressions do you use in your language? We’d love to hear from you!

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