17 French words we’ve stolen and reinvented in English

17 French words we've stolen and reinvented in English
Photo: Luigi Guarini/Flickr
Here are the French words we use in English, in a manner that even the French themselves may not quite understand.

The French like to pinch words from English and then reinvent them – something we have investigated previously (care to join us for some footing, perhaps?)

But, did you realise that us English speakers are equally guilty of bastardising French words?

With roughly one-third of the English language being derived from French, it's no surprise that there are a few words that didn't exactly remain true to their original form.

Here are some of our favourite examples:

Negligee: You might get some funny looks if you asked for one of these at a French lingerie boutique, as it literally means ‘neglected’ and not a light or even see-through, sexy dressing gown.

Premiere/Debut: In English “premiere” refers to the opening of a show or movie, but be careful about using it in French as it just means the “start” or “first”. Also the English use “debut” as to refer to the first public performance or appearance or a person or group, as in “Griezmann made his debut for France on Saturday”… But in French the word “debut” just means the beginning.

Touché: In English you might say touché when someone throws out a bruising comeback, but they don't use it like that in France. Touché literally means “touched” and comes from when you take a hit in fencing. 

À la mode: In French “À la mode” means fashionable, which is how it is generally used in English in the UK, but sit down at a restaurant in the United States and order “pie à la mode” and you'll get a slice of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream on top. 

Photo: SleepyKisser/Flickr


RSVP – This acronym from French placed on invitations is well used in English, but even though it comes from “Répondez S'il vous Plait” the French don't really have a clue what it means if they see it. They are more likely to use “Réponse souhaitée” if they want an answer to an invitation.

Bête noire: In the UK bête noire refers to a rival who has a habit of winning, as in Federer is Nadal's bête noire, but in French it's a person or thing that someone particularly dislikes.

Maître d’: This comes from “Maître d'hôtel”, which means the person in charge of the service at a restaurant or hotel. But for some reason, in English we chop it down to “Maître d” which means literally “master of”.

Déjà vu: For us English speakers it's “déjà vu” all over again, but in French it just means something you've seen before. So it's similar, but the connotation of repetition and familiarity is missing.

Encore: The French do not yell this at the end of a concert when hoping to get another song out of the band. It's referred to as a “rappel” in France, whereas “encore” just means “more”.

Encore! Photo: AFP

Entrée: This is a very confusing one because in the United States an entrée is the main course of a meal while in France it's an appetizer. 

Matinée: The French person at the ticket booth will probably understand if you order two seats for the matinée, but don’t count on it. “Matinée” simply means “morning” in French, rather than afternoon show at the cinema or theatre.

Risqué: Those of us who love to use French-sounding vocabulary to talk about sex, this word means something is slightly indecent or capable of shocking people. That would confuse the French, because the word for them means “risk” plain and simple.

Résumé: Some English speakers refer to their CV as their “résumé”, but perhaps they shouldn't, as “résumé” just means “summary” to the French.

Double entendre: If you literally translate this one into French it means ‘to hear double’. The actual French saying for this is ‘une expression à double sens.’  

Ensuite: If you try to get fancy and start throwing around French words when you book your next hotel room in Paris avoid this one. Though for English-speakers it refers to a room with an attached bathroom, for the French en suite it means “next” or “following”.

Après Ski: in English this refers to the boozy session in the bars once skiers have descended from the slops, but with the French perhaps much less likely to go drinking after a day's exercise, “après ski” simply refers to the winter boots they might put on after taking their skies off.

Another version of this story was published in September 2014.

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  1. The term “It is déjà vu, all over again” has been ascribed to the famous New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. In the USA it is used as a light-hearted phrase, with an ironic note as to its repetitious significance.

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