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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:

Negligée: 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. 

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”.

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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POLITICS

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing

French President Emmanuel Macron has grabbed headlines after saying that he wanted to 'emmerder' those who choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. But he is far from the first French president to slip into colourful language.

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing
Emmanuel Macron at the statue of Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP

“I really want to piss off the unvaccinated,” French President Emmanuel Macron, drawing widespread condemnation for his choice of language.

In an interview with Le Parisien, he said that la bêtise (“stupidity”) was the “worst enemy of democracy”.

It is not the first time that the leader has used fruity language since being elected.

He has variously described the French as fainéants (lazy), les gens qui ne sont rien (people who are nothing), and Gaulois réfractaires (Gauls who are resistant to change). During a visit to a factory, he once said that protestors outside of a factory should go to work rather than foutre le bordel (“fuck things up” – or literally, “fuck up the brothel”). 

READ MORE Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ unvaxxed was deliberate and won’t hurt his election chances

Serving as the Economy Minister under the presidency of François Hollande, he said “there were lots of illiterate people” during a visit to an abattoir. 

“In a certain way, we are like prostitutes: this job is about seducing,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, describing his former job as a banker. 

Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder – “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated

Other French leaders have dished out their fair share of provocative statements – some more discretely than others. 

François Hollande 

Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, allegedly referred to the protesters and poor people as sans dents (toothless people). The revelation came after his 2017 election defeat and was disclosed by his ex-partner, Valérie Trierweiler – although we should probably point that she wasn’t exactly his biggest fan after he was caught having an affair with an actress while they were together. 

Nicolas Sarkozy 

Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007-12 is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. 

During a visit to the 2008 Salon de l’Agriculture, he was shaking hands with people in the crowd.

One man told him Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!). 

The President replied Eh ben casse-toi alors, pauv’ con ! (Well fuck off then, asshole).

Sarkozy described Hollande as an amateur, mal fagoté (shabbily dressed) and un président ridicule (a ridiculous president). He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots). He described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (mannish/butch), Xavier Bertrand as un médiocre and François Fillon (who served as Prime Minister during Sarkozy’s presidency) as un loser

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy described the residents of Argenteuil as racaille (scum) after a visit to the Parisian suburb saw his convoy ambushed by people throwing objects from tower block.

Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac is best known internationally for his opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

While he may have been reluctant to launch military attacks, verbal assaults were his strong point. 

Before becoming President, he served as Prime Minister where he met with Margaret Thatcher at a European summit. After a disagreement, he told reporters: Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (What does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?)

Other highlights include:

Les emmerdes, ça vole toujours en escadrille –  Shits always fly together 

Les sondages, ça va ça vient, c’est comme la queue d’un chien – Polls come and go, like a dog’s cock

On greffe de tout aujourd’hui, des reins, des bras, un cœur. Sauf les couilles. Par manque de donneur – We transplant everything today, kidneys, arms, a heart. But not balls – because of a lack of donors. 

For a much longer list of Chirac’s insults, gaffes and hot-mic moments, click HERE.

Charles de Gaulle

As the founding father of the fifth republic, it would be wrong not to include Charles de Gaulle on this prestigious list. 

In 1968 the president used the word chienlit to describe the social disorder around the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as “shitting in your own bed”.

Adored by many, he also uttered some fairly contemptuous words about his countrymen, saying Les Français sont des veaux  – The French are calves (suggesting weak, easily led)

Macron is something of a fan of De Gaulle, even including one of the General’s books in the background of his official portrait, so perhaps he is also emulating his language? 

Georges Clemenceau 

Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France during the latter part of WWI. He was known to have a difficult relationship with his British counterpart, David Llyod George. He once said je pouvais pisser comme il parle (I could piss when he speaks). 

Clemenceau described one of his political rivals, the pacifist Jean Jaurès, as a “dangerous imbecile”. 

Napoleon 

Napoleon Bonaparte was betrayed by one of his ministers, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who sold state secrets to France’s enemies. 

After finding out, Napoleon reportedly said Vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie! (You are shit at the bottom of a silk stocking). 

Coincidentally, Talleyrand is the man credited with popularising escargots in France

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