French words that the English language needs

Isn't it about time English started stealing words from French again? Here's a list of great French words we think it's high time were added to our dictionaries.

French words that the English language needs
Photo: Tim Green/Flickr
It might sound like a cliché, but a croissant from a café is always better than one from a restaurant.
While that might look like a typically English sentence to you, four of the key words are pilfered from the French language.  
Now there's nothing wrong with that especially given how many English words are drifting across the Channel into the French language these days.
In fact, there are thousands French words that have made it into English over the years, from the delightful “cul-de-sac” to the more eyebrow-raising ones like RSVP (répondez s'il vous plaît), which mindbogglingly snuck past the happy-go-lucky English language police.
Seeming as the English language police are far more carefree than their French counterparts, we are proposing more French words that need to be copy-pasted into English dictionaries today. 
Starting with a classic. 

(A flaneur in Paris. Photo: Tom/Flickr)
This is a word to refer to a person who enjoys a good mindless wander, with everything that goes with it. If you think “stroller” is a good translation then think again. A stroller is much better suited to a baby transporter. Example: “My father's a bit of a flaneur. He's always going out for a stroll,” sounds perfectly normal in English.
La Couvade

(Photo: JK Califf/Flickr)
“La Couvade” is a phenomenon that occurs in men whose partners are pregnant. Just as the bump on the mum-to-be increases, so does the belly on the dad-to-be.
A “sympathetic pregnancy” is about as close as you can get, but it's pretty useless as an alternative. Example: “You need to do something about your couvade!” says mum to dad. “You're not the one having the baby!”
This term does actually exist in English but it is hardly used and needs to be, especially as there are a lot of English speaking guys out there who will no doubt know exactly what we are talking about.

(Photo: MonkeyC/Flickr)
An empêchement is an unforeseen difficulty or change of plans, generally the kind of thing that crops up and means you're not going to make it to somewhere you said you'd be. In English, we might say “Sorry, something came up”, but it would be far better if we could call our boss and say “Sorry I am going to be a little late, there's been an empêchement”. 
This delightful little word is most often used as part of the phrase “J'en ai ras-le-bol” which literally means “My bowl is full”. More figuratively, it means “I've had enough”. Ras-le-bol also works as a noun which means “fed-upness” or discontent in general.
The French often talk about the “ras-le-bol fiscal” to refer to their all round fed-upness with having to pay so many taxes.
But English-speakers are not immune to suffering from “tax ras-le-bol” too, or they might be in future.

(A man takes a baguette as others line up for one of their own. Photo: AFP)
Imagine when you feel a bit out of place or disorientated in a new setting when things seem strange and foreign. Then you could call home and tell your family you're suffering from a little “dépaysement”.
It literally translates to something “de-country-fying” but can also be used in a positive sense. If in a few years' time when an English person tells you they fancy a “dépaysement” they'll be referring to something along the lines of a change of scenery.

(Photo: Chris Beckett/Flickr)
Who said the French weren't efficient? With just six letters, they've come up with a word that takes at least four words in English – “bags under your eyes”. Or “dark rings under your eyes”. We like it, and we're pinching it. Example. “Woah, what time did you get home last night? You've got some serious cernes going on”.

(Photo: Rick Harris/Flickr)
Bof. French people use this little word when they've got a distinct lack of interest in something. It's a cousin of the newish word “meh” in English, which we can all agree is a terrible word and needs to be done away with immediately.
Bof is a little less indifferent, and infinitely more pleasurable to say. 
“Did you watch Game of Thrones last night? Bof. I don't really care about it.” Plus as soon as you say it you'll find yourself automatically shrugging.


(Photo: AFP)
Here's another one for the language nerds, which means “someone who is sensitive to the cold”. Example: “I'm afraid I can't join you on the winter walk along La Seine, I'm a bit of a frileux”.

(Photo: Marufish/Flickr)
Spend more than ten minutes in France and you will hear this word.
It's the best swear word in French and could be classed as somewhere between the S word and the F word in English.
Why do we need it? Because it's the ultimate curse word and it just sounds brilliant. In fact, many English-speaking expats in France already have picked it up when they speak their mother tongue.
Example: “Putain… what happened to my tyre?”

(Photo: Uppy/Flickr)
A fantastic verb that doesn't exist in English, meaning when you puff smoke without really inhaling any into your lungs. Sure, it sounds like a slang American word for a toilet, but who cares, it's a nice verb, and we're pinching it. 
“You're not really inhaling you're crapoting.”
Le Spleen

(Photo: ryan melaugh/Flickr)
No, not the blood-filtering organ. Spleen is a word to describe when you're really feeling profoundly down or have a bad case of the blues.
French poet Baudelaire is credited with inventing the word, and even wrote a poem called Spleen about a king who is feeling a whole lot of spleen. 
(Photo: Nacho Rascon/Flickr)
You know those people who sit around in a cafe all day, but don't really spend much money? Well, that's what we are now going to refer to as a seigneur-terrace, because that's what the French do. Example: That guy has been sitting there all day, what a seigneur-terrace. Maybe he's here for the WiFi…

(Photo: Christophe Verdier/Flickr)
Lastly, this is a favourite here at The Local. Taken directly from the magic phrase abracadabra, this adjective means something along the lines of incredible, or marvellous. “Have you tasted the macaroons at that new café? They're absolutely abracadrabrant.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.