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32 French Words and Phrases Commonly Used in the English Language

April 2024


In the interconnected tapestry of global languages, French holds a distinctive place in the English lexicon, infusing it with a range of expressive, elegant terms that resonate with cultural sophistication. The adoption of French words into English is not merely a matter of linguistic borrowing but a reflection of the deep historical, artistic, and culinary ties that bind these two languages. This article explores the myriad French words that have found a home in English, highlighting their significance and usage across various domains such as cuisine, lifestyle, art, and politics. From dining to fashion, and from intellectual discussions to everyday chit-chat, these French imports add depth and nuance to English, making it a richer, more diverse means of communication.

1. Culinary and Lifestyle


1.1: Culinary Terms

  • À la carte: This term literally translates to "according to the menu" and is used in English to denote a method of ordering individual dishes, as opposed to a fixed menu. It allows diners to customize their meal experience by selecting each dish from a list of options, emphasizing personal choice and a tailored dining experience.

  • Apéritif: Derived from the Latin word "aperire" which means "to open," an apéritif is a drink served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Common in European dining culture, its use in English not only describes the beverage itself—typically a light alcoholic drink such as vermouth, champagne, or a cocktail—but also encapsulates the ritual of enjoying a drink before dinner.

  • Haute couture: A term that transcends mere fashion, "haute couture" is used in English to describe custom-fitted clothing of the highest quality, made by leading fashion houses. It represents the pinnacle of fashion artistry, characterized by meticulous handcraft and exclusive materials, often requiring several fittings for a single garment.

  • Sommelier: Borrowed from French, where it originally referred to a cargo manager, a sommelier in the English context is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, typically working in fine dining establishments. They specialize in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing, elevating the dining experience through their expert recommendations and insights.

1.2: Lifestyle and Philosophy

  • Joie de vivre: Literally meaning "joy of living," this phrase is employed in English to express a cheerful enjoyment of life, an exuberance that is infectious and uplifting. It encapsulates a philosophy of living life to the fullest, often associated with spontaneous, carefree attitudes.

  • Laissez-faire: Originally an economic term meaning "let do," this French phrase has been adopted into English to describe a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering. In broader terms, it suggests a hands-off approach not only in economics but in various aspects of governance, management, and personal interactions.

  • Raison-d'être: Meaning "reason for being," this phrase is used in English to denote the fundamental reason for the existence of a person, object, or idea. It invites deeper reflection on purpose and motivation, providing a succinct way to discuss the core of existential inquiries.

  • Savoir-faire: Translating to "know how to do," savoir-faire in English connotes a polished sureness in social behavior that cannot be learned from books but comes from experience. It describes a person who is adaptable, tactful, and skilled in navigating complex social situations, often with a sense of grace and confidence.


2. Artistic and Literary Terms

2.1: Art and Fashion

  • Avant-garde: Originally a military term meaning "advance guard," this phrase has been adopted into English to describe people or works that are innovative, particularly in the arts. It suggests a pushing of boundaries and exploring new, experimental ideas, often ahead of mainstream trends. The term embodies a spirit of rebellion against the conventional, paving the way for future artistic movements.

  • Faux: Meaning "false" in French, "faux" is used in English to describe something that is artificial or imitation. It commonly appears in phrases like "faux fur" or "faux leather," indicating materials designed to mimic the appearance of real fur or leather without using animal products. The use extends beyond fashion, applying to any facsimile that seeks to replicate something authentic.

  • Genre: Borrowed directly from French, "genre" in English refers to a category or type, particularly in art and literature, that has distinctive style, form, or content. Whether discussing films, books, or paintings, genre helps classify works based on shared conventions and themes, making it easier to discuss the framework within which a creator operates.

  • Silhouette: The term comes from the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who was known for his austerity measures, which included cheaply produced portraits. In English, a silhouette is a filled-in outline of an object, usually black, showing only its shape and contours without any internal detail. The term evokes both the artistic technique and its resulting visual effect, often used in fashion, photography, and design.

2.2: Literature and Speech

  • Cliché: A cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. The term originally refers to a printer's word for a stereotype block used to reproduce text or images multiple times. In English, it criticizes banal repetition and encourages seeking fresher or more original expressions.

  • Faux-pas: Literally meaning "false step" in French, a faux-pas in English refers to a socially awkward or tactless act. This term captures those moments when social norms are not observed, leading to embarrassment or discomfort. It underscores the importance of social etiquette and cultural awareness.

  • Pastiche: This term refers to an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period. It can be seen as an homage or a playful imitation, often used to celebrate the original works it mimics. In literature and film, pastiche serves as a tool for commentary on or tribute to the styles and themes of other artists.

  • Pot-pourri: Originally meaning "rotten pot," this term now refers to a mixture of dried, naturally fragrant plant materials, used to provide a gentle natural scent inside spaces. In literary terms, it describes a mixture or collection of miscellaneous or diverse items—literally a "stew" of various thoughts or ideas, often eclectic and intriguing.

3. Social and Political Terms

3.1: Social Interactions

  • Bourgeois: This term, originating from the French word for "town dweller," refers to the middle class in English, typically characterized by conventional attitudes and materialistic values. It is often used critically in social and cultural analysis to describe the predominant values and norms of the middle-class society.

  • Fiancé: Used for a man engaged to be married, and "fiancée" for a woman, these terms come directly from the French past participle of "fiancer," meaning to promise. In English, they signify a commitment to an upcoming marriage, encapsulating not just a personal relationship status but also a formal social acknowledgment of this promise.

  • Rendez-vous: Borrowed directly without alteration in spelling, "rendez-vous" is a term used in English to refer to a planned meeting between two or more people. Its use evokes a sense of arrangement and purpose, often imbued with a notion of privacy or intimacy in social contexts.

  • Tête-à-tête: Literally "head to head" in French, this term is used in English to describe a private conversation between two people. It highlights the close, intimate nature of the exchange, suggesting a setting where confidences are exchanged and personal matters are discussed.

3.2: Political and Strategic Terms

  • Carte blanche: Meaning "blank card" in French, this term is used in English to denote complete freedom to act as one wishes or thinks best. It is often used in diplomatic, creative, or managerial contexts where unrestricted authority is granted to make decisions.

  • Coup d’état: A direct borrowing from French, meaning "stroke of state." In English, it refers to a sudden, decisive exercise of force in politics, typically the illegal overthrow of a government. The term conveys the abruptness and severity of such an action, often involving military or political intrigue.

  • Coup-de-grace: Meaning "stroke of grace," this phrase originally referred to a merciful death blow to end the suffering of a severely wounded person or animal. In wider use, it refers to an action that conclusively ends or resolves a situation, often after a prolonged period.

  • Sabotage: This term originates from the French word "sabot" (a type of shoe) and involves deliberately destroying, damaging, or obstructing something, typically for political or military advantage. In English, it carries a connotation of subversion, highlighting actions intended to disrupt or undermine an enemy or competitor.

4. Miscellaneous Terms

4.1: Various Expressions

  • Blasé: This French term, indicating a lack of enthusiasm due to being unimpressed or bored, perfectly captures a jaded attitude often seen in English contexts. It reflects an indifference that comes from excess familiarity or overindulgence, frequently used to describe someone's nonchalant reaction to what might typically excite or impress.

  • Déjà vu: Literally meaning "already seen," this phrase describes the eerie sensation that one has witnessed or experienced a current situation before. In English, it connotes a metaphysical or psychological phenomenon, often provoking discussions about memory, perception, and the experience of time.

  • Impasse: Originating from the French word for "dead end," an impasse in English refers to a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock. It is commonly used in negotiations and discussions where conflicting parties find no solution or agreement achievable.

  • Mirage: Borrowed from French, where it means "to look at" or "to wonder at," mirage in English describes an optical phenomenon that creates the illusion of water, often seen on hot surfaces like roads or deserts. The term has been metaphorically extended to refer to any deceptive appearance or illusion.

4.2: Souvenirs and Memories

  • Façade: Originally "front" or "face" of a building in French, this term in English has broadened to describe any superficial appearance or illusion that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality. It's frequently used in both physical and metaphorical contexts, discussing everything from architecture to personal relationships.

  • Souvenir: From the French verb "souvenir," meaning "to remember," a souvenir in English is a token or object kept as a reminder of a place, person, or event. This term beautifully encapsulates the human desire to hold onto memories through physical mementos.

  • Surreal: Stemming from the French surréalisme, which denotes a movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, in English, "surreal" is used to describe experiences that are bizarre or fantastical, often defying logical explanation. It's a popular descriptor for situations that seem like they belong in a dream or fantasy rather than reality.


The journey through the panorama of French words in the English language illustrates not only linguistic borrowing but also cultural exchange. These terms enrich English, providing nuances that native words might lack and bringing with them layers of history, art, and philosophy. They facilitate a more nuanced expression of ideas, enhance artistic description, and enable a more profound discussion of social and political phenomena. This linguistic melding serves as a reminder of the dynamic, evolving nature of language and the continuous interplay between cultures. As English continues to adapt and grow, the influence of French, among other languages, ensures that it remains a rich, versatile means of global communication.

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