10 French Words That You’ve Seen Before… in English
Over the years, the English language has borrowed a great number of French words and expressions. Some of this vocabulary has been so completely absorbed by English that speakers might not realize its origins.
Here is a list of 10 French words used in English. The literal English translation is provided and followed by an explanation
If you’re returning from an amazing trip, you’ll no doubt bring back an amazing gift for yourself or friends, a.k.a. souvenir—a tiny piece of memorabilia.
For English speakers a souvenir is tangible, physical, and visible. For the French too, but not exactly. The verb souvenir also means to “remember” or “recall.”
S’en souvenir. (to remember/recall)
Je me souviens. (I remember.)
Je ne me souviens pas. (I don’t remember.)
So while the word souvenir in French does describe a physical relic that induces “recollection,” it also defines any old “memory.”
Déjà Vu and Déjà-Vu
“I’m having déjà vu” has somehow secretly slipped into English to solely describe an inexplicable instance that may have never actually happened.
“Already seen,” is the English translation of the French phrase with which we associate that weird feeling of reliving the same past experience.
In France you’ll often hear this word, 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 too believe in the weird phenomenon (of course they do!), 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.)
C’est du déjà-vu. (It’s nothing new./It’s predictable.)
Note: There is always a space before “?” and “!” when writing in French.
A favorite French phrase that gets our appetite going (oh hey, “appetite” is another French one, appétit!), to us English speakers, hors d’oeuvre screams lavish parties and cocktail hour.
“Out of work” is the literal translation, hors (out) d’œuvre (of work). Historical context: Hors d’œuvre were served before/”out” of the main course or “work” of art (by the chef) and thus, hors d’œuvre was born. The “d” gets contracted to the word “œuvre” due to the French vowel rule, but you should already know that!
Why the contraction? Well here’s a little explanation:
Consonant words such as de, du, le, la, que, je, me, te, ne, se, or ce get contracted with an apostrophe and lose their end vowels when the following word starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u, y), a silent H or Y pronoun.
Note: Qui (who) never gets contracted.
Le + ocean = l’océan (the ocean)
La + amour = l’amour (the love)
De + or = d’or (of gold)
Le + homme = l’homme (the man) — Homme with a capital H signifies “men,” as in humankind.
And here’s our example:
Les hors d’œuvre étaient vraiment délicieux. (The hors d’oeuvres were very delicious.)
Note: In French, the word hors d’œuvre doesn’t take an “s” in the plural!
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 not exactly a person’s face, as figuratively used in English.
“Face” [fas] in French is the word for “face” in English, so we see where the English picked up that figure of speech, but “visage” in French literally describes the body part of a person’s “face.”
More commonly, in both English and French, façade is the “front” or “side” of a building, while the expression “en face” means “in front of.”
La façade de cette maison est ancienne. (The façade of this house is old.)
The “first showing” of a movie or spectacle, how much do we love those? They’re affordable and place you on top of a movie critic’s (critiques, another French word) list.
On the French side, matinée, like “matin,” means “morning,” as well as the “entire morning” (from sunrise to noon). While the French might also have their matinée movie deals, for them it refers to the “first showing” in the afternoon, not morning.
Furthermore, matinée in French is also a woman’s “morning” draws, robe or attire (although this term isn’t used very often anymore). For example:
Cette une belle matinée. (It’s a beautiful morning.)
Une matinée de ballet. (An afternoon performance of ballet.)
Faire la grasse matinée. (To sleep in late./To sleep the entire morning.)
You shout “Encore! Encore! Encore!” while giving a standing ovation, raising both of your hands clasped together to make a single fist, shaking it from left to right.
A phrase that English speakers use after an impeccable performance. So good, that you need more, encore!
For English speakers encore is only related to show biz, but in French it’s a daily dose. “Again” or “another” are the literal translations. “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.)
En veux-tu encore ? (Do you want some more?)
Encore mieux ! (Even better!)
You’ve been invited to countless weddings, showers, sweet sixteens and bat/bar mitzvahs your whole life, but did you ever think about whatR.S.V.P stands for? In case you never did, it’s an original French acronym:
“Respond If It Pleases You” or “Respond If You Please,” there we go again with that grammatical contraction. If you’re wondering—nope, there’s no English translation or acronym, English speakers completely borrowed it from the French.
This might be the most borrowed French phrase, not only in English, but in other romance languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian.
“Before guard” or “advance guard” are the literal translations of this French phrase. The word garde can mean a “guard,” like a body guard, or to “keep” or “save,” as in garder.
Avant-garde, as English speakers know it, defines an innovative movement in the arts, usually pertaining to artists, writers and musicians who are “advanced” in their fields, and the same meaning holds in French.
The French avant-garde also means the “front line” or vanguard—which bears the same meaning in both English and French.
Andy Warhol était un artiste de l’avant-garde. (Andy Warhol was an avant-garde artist)
Yes, this is another famous French word that slips by many of us. There is no translation since fiancé is, well, a fiancé. One little secret is the difference in spelling. Fiancé with one “e” refers to a male fiancé while fiancée with two “e’s” refers to a female, because there’s always the masculine and feminine way of writing French words!
Je vous présente mon fiancé. (I introduce you to my fiancé.) – Male
Voici ma fiancée. (Here is my fiancée.) – Female
Touché, “I gotch ya” or “nice one,” is how English speakers express the French phrase, usually 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. For example:
As-tu déjà touché un serpent ? (Have you ever touched a snake?)