by Liz Walter
It is an odd irony that the more sophisticated your use of English is, the more likely you are to use French words and phrases. Or, to be more accurate, ones you know to be French – words such as ballet, au pair, abattoir, fiancé, café, and restaurant are so entrenched in English that we don’t really think of them as French at all (even the ones with accents).
French is the first foreign language that most British children learn in school, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that we pepper our own language with it, particularly in some contexts. For example, we often use French words to describe personality, with adjectives such as gauche, blasé, soigné or laissez-faire and nouns such as panache, élan, savoir-faire, sangfroid and joie de vivre. Similarly, we could describe someone as an enfant terrible, a femme fatale, a bon vivant, an ingénue or an éminence grise.
Terms such as cordon bleu and haute couture are used deliberately to connote high class and quality, and there is no doubt that a certain snobbery can attach to the use of French. Phrases like soi-disant, de trop, comme il faut or de nos jours exclude all but the most educated. And what could be more snobbish than to describe someone as a petit bourgeois or a parvenu?
However, when English speakers do use French, it is often in a rather arch or joky way, putting it in metaphorical inverted commas. If you ask for a soupçon of milk in your tea, or tell someone that you are temporarily hors de combat, you would usually be inviting a smile. I fondly remember taking a child with a broken bone to hospital and being introduced to a nurse who introduced himself as ‘Philip. Plasterer extraordinaire.’
There are also some French phrases that we use very commonly because we can’t express the concept anywhere near as neatly in English. Déjà vu is probably the most obvious example – a universal phenomenon with no name in English. When we talk about someone being given a carte blanche to do something, or about something being a fait accompli, we do so because an English paraphrase would be less economical or elegant.
So to sum up, using French words is not de rigeur, though they can certainly expand our répertoire and provide the odd bon mot. However, care is required if we want to avoid giving an impression of speaking de haut en bas.