A certain je ne sais quoi: French words and phrases used in English

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.

16 thoughts on “A certain je ne sais quoi: French words and phrases used in English

  1. ANNA stb

    The same goes for Greek words, since it is known worldwide that the Greek language constitutes the basis of all the rest!!! It’s common knowledge, isn’t it??

  2. ANNA stb

    e.g. phenomenon, analysis, basis, theory, criticism, philosophy, symbol, symbolic, chaos, catastrophe, crisis, harmony, euphoria, melody, rhyme, rhythm, tragedy, methodology, anthropology, character, egocentric, egoism, theme, thesis, irony, paradox, cosmology, astrophysics, asteroid, astronomical, democracy. Do not I sound absolutely sophisticated and cultivated?? Well maybe I am indeed…The thing is, you are sure to have been convinced…

    1. phudit puangmalai

      I know almost half of em but i dont think i would use some of them in communication which could possibly trigger misunderstanding, esp outside uk. as you say, many words are destined for jokes and showing the particular french knowledge of the speakers of the certain groups. Anyways, this blog took me to the next level of learning english words.

  3. Luc007

    “Touché” !

    May I add that a woman with “flair” (a Southern “belle” perhaps ?) should definitely choose her “beau” among youngsters sporting “chiné” sweaters, driving “coupés” and holidaying in “chalets”, in order to avoid being considered “passé” ?

    And one should not forget the one French word that is probably understood almost everywhere in the world : “hotel” …

  4. Liz Walter

    Hi Tadzio – good question! If you had asked this 10 years ago, I would probably have said that ‘in school’ was American and ‘at school’ British. However, ‘in school’ is often used in British English now, but usually only when you are talking about what happens in schools in general. For talking about a specific school, Brits still use ‘at school’, e.g. Where is Tom? He’s at school. ‘At school’ would be correct in the context in my article too. So you can safely use ‘at school’ in any situation.

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  7. John Petersen

    I often here people from England use the expression “he was sat there”, or “I was sat there”,”we were sat there”, etc.

    I am not aware of hearing it said by those who seem to be well educated, not is it heard in English speaking countries outside the UK in my experience.

    I am not well versed in the proper use of the rules of English, but to my ear it seems to be a real clash of the tenses; “was” being past tense. Yet to say “he sat there” also implies the past.

    Ideas please.


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