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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

17 French words we’ve stolen and reinvented in English

Here are the French words we use in English, in a manner that even the French themselves may not quite understand.

17 French words we've stolen and reinvented in English
Photo: Luigi Guarini/Flickr

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.

Member comments

  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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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