20 French Phrases You Should Be Using

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iStock.com/omersukrugoksu

According to some estimates, 30 percent of the English language—or roughly one in three English words—is derived directly from French. It’s a surprisingly high figure due in part to the Norman Conquest of 1066, which made French the language of the law, finance, government, the military, and the ruling classes in England, and effectively doubled our vocabulary overnight. But the popularity of French culture and French literature among English speakers has also given our language a whole host of other words and phrases—like mardi gras, avant garde, déjà vu, and femme fatale—that are now so naturalized in English that they can be used without a second thought.

Alongside everyday examples like these, however, English has also adopted a number of much less familiar French phrases that, despite their potential usefulness, go tragically underused. So why not add a little je ne sais quoi to your everyday conversation with these 20 little-known French expressions?

1. À la débandade

The phrase à la is well-known to English speakers for meaning “in the style of” or “according to,” and is seen in phrases like à la mode (“according to the fashion”), and à la carte (“on the menu”). À la débandade—literally “like a stampede”—was originally a military term that in English dates from the 18th century, when it was first used to refer to an informal or random course of action, or else a disorderly, scattering retreat or rout. More recently it’s come to be used figuratively in English to describe a disorderly or chaotic mess.

2. Amour fou

Used in English since the early 1900s, an amour fou is an uncontrollable and obsessive passion for someone, and in particular one that is not reciprocated. It literally means “insane love.”

3. L’appel du vide

Alongside l’esprit de l’escalier (more on that later), the French expression l’appel du vide often makes its way onto lists of foreign words and phrases that have no real English equivalent. It literally means “the call of the void,” but in practice it’s usually explained as the bizarre inclination some people have for doing something dangerous or deadly, no matter how foolish they know it is. So when you’re standing on a beach, l’appel du vide is the voice that tells you to swim away and never come back. When standing on a clifftop, l’appel du vide tells you to throw yourself off. There might not be an obvious English equivalent, but the concept of l’appel du vide is related to the psychological notion of intrusive thoughts, and the mythological song of the Siren blamed for luring sailors to their doom.

4. Après moi, le déluge

Après moi, le déluge means “after me, the flood,” and is used to refer to a person’s irresponsible or selfish lack of concern about what will happen after they have gone or moved on. Today it’s often associated with politicians and CEOs looking to secure their own interests at the expense of other people’s, but popular (and likely apocryphal) history claims the words were first used by the French king Louis XV, who repeatedly disregarded warnings of discontent among the French people in the lead up to the French Revolution. When the Revolution finally broke out in 1789 (15 years after Louis’s death), it eventually led to the execution of his grandson, King Louis XVI, in 1793.

5. Cherchez la femme

Literally meaning “look for the woman,” cherchez la femme is used in English to imply that if a man is seen acting out of character, then a woman will likely be the cause of it—find her, and the issue will be resolved. Although the origins of the phrase are a mystery, it’s often credited to the French author Alexandre Dumas, père, and his crime story Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-9). Most famously, when the story was later adapted to the stage, a character announced: “Il y a une femme dans toutes les affaires; aussitôt qu'on me fait un rapport, je dis: 'Cherchez la femme.'” (“There is a woman in all cases; as soon as a report is brought to me I say, ‘Cherchez la femme!’”)

6. Coup de foudre

Coup de foudre is the French term for a strike of lightning, and it’s been used figuratively in English since the late 1700s to mean love at first sight.

7. L’esprit de l’escalier

Known less romantically as “staircase wit” in English, l’esprit de l’escalier is the frustrating phenomenon of coming up with the perfect observation or comeback after the opportunity to use it has passed. The phrase was apparently coined by the 18th century French writer Diderot, who wrote that while visiting the French statesman Jacques Necker, a comment was made to which Diderot was unable to respond. “A sensitive man […] overcome by the argument leveled against him,” he wrote, “becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the staircase.”

8. Honi soit qui mal y pense

“Shame on him who thinks badly of it,” warns the old Norman French saying honi soit qui mal y pense, which has been used in English to discourage preemptively or unjustly talking something down since the Middle Ages. The saying has been the motto of The Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious honor awarded in Great Britain, since it was introduced in 1348.

9. Mauvais quart d’heure

As well as having your 15 minutes of fame, you can also have your mauvais quart d’heure (or your “bad quarter of an hour”)—a brief but embarrassing, upsetting, or demoralizing experience.

10. Mauvaise honte

Mauvaise honte literally means “bad shame.” In English it’s often used simply to mean bashfulness or extreme shyness, but in its earliest and original sense mauvaise honte has been used since the 18th century to refer to false or affected modesty, in which someone pretends to have a low opinion of themselves or their abilities.

11. Mise en abyme

The French word mise essentially means “that which is put,” and as such appears in a number of phrases that refer to things being deliberately placed or arranged: a mise en scène is the dressing of a theatrical stage, a mise en page is the design or layout of a book or page of text, and mise en place is now widely known as the preparation and organization of all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Mise en abyme is a much less familiar expression that was originally only used in heraldry: the abyme is the center segment of a shield or a coat of arms, and in a mise en abyme this central section is decorated with a smaller image of the same shield. So because this means that this small central image must—in theory, though rarely in practice—in turn also contain a small central image of itself (which must in turn also contain the same image, and so on, and so on), the phrase mise en abyme (“put into the abyss”) is used to refer to the mind-boggling visual effect of a recurring image containing itself into infinity—like a mirror reflected in a mirror, or, more literarily, a story within a story or a play within a play.

12. Nostalgie de la boue

The phrase nostalgie de la boue was coined by the French dramatist Émile Augier in 1855, who used it to refer to a fondness for cruel, crude, depraved, or humiliating things. Its meaning has extended over time, however, so that today a nostalgie de la boue is often used more loosely to refer to a desire to live a simpler, downsized, or less indulgent life—it literally means “a yearning for the mud.”

13. Plus ça change

In 1849 an article appeared in a satirical French magazine that denounced the country’s current political situation. Written by a French journalist named Alphonse Karr, the article pessimistically concluded that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing.” Karr’s words soon stuck and by the early 1900s plus ça change had even been adopted into English as a motto indicating a world-weary acceptance of the current state of affairs—although things might appear to change or improve, beneath it all they remain just as bad as before.

14. Pour encourager les autres

The ironic expression pour encourager les autres—meaning “so as to encourage the others”—actually refers to an action carried out to discourage any future unrest or rebellion. It was first used in this context by French journalists—and Voltaire—in the 18th century following the execution of an English admiral named John Byng. After a long and well-respected naval career, Byng was court-martialed by the Royal Navy in 1757 for having apparently failed to do his utmost in preventing the French from invading the British-held island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean. Although the charges brought against Byng were trumped-up (and, according to some, politically motivated)—and despite even King George II himself being petitioned to overturn Byng’s death sentence—he was executed by firing squad on board his own ship in Portsmouth Harbour on March 14, 1757. Understandably, the entire situation proved hugely controversial in England, and at the height of Britain’s Seven Years’ War against France became a major news story and source of much anti-British propaganda all across Europe.

15. Reculer pour mieux sauter

If you reculer pour mieux sauter, then you literally “draw back in order to leap better.” Derived from an old French proverb, the phrase is used figuratively in both French and English to refer to a temporary withdrawal or pause in action that allows for time to regroup or reassess a situation, and therefore make a better attempt at it in the future.

16. Revenons à nos moutons

You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding why someone might say “let us return to our sheep” mid-conversation, but revenons à nos moutons has been used figuratively in English for more than 400 years to mean “let us return to the matter at hand.” The phrase comes from a 15th century French farce, La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin, that became one of the most popular stage comedies of its day. It’s this popularity that no doubt helped this line—taken from a central courtroom scene in which one character, accused of stealing sheep, is advised by his lawyer to answer all of the prosecutor’s questions by baaing—to catch on in the language.

17. Foi fainéant

Fainéant is basically the French equivalent of someone who’s lazy or do-nothing, which makes a roi fainéant literally a “do-nothing king.” The term dates back at least to the 16th century in France and in English has been used since the 1700s. Originally, it referred to the Merovingian kings, who near the end of their dynasty increasingly served as figureheads with no real power. By the 19th century it extended to any ruler in a similar situation.

18. Tant bien que mal

Tant bien que mal has been used in English since the 18th century to describe anything that is only partly or moderately successful. It literally means “as well as badly.”

19. Ventre à terre

Ventre à terre literally means “belly to the ground” in French, and so, taken literally, it can be used simply to describe someone or something lying face-down (in the early 19th century it was used to refer to asking for a “pardon in a most abject position”). The modern English meaning, however, was a term from horse racing, and referred to a horse going at full gallop—so fast that its forelegs are thrown out in front, its hind legs are thrown out backwards, and its belly is directly above the ground. Doing something ventre à terre, ultimately means doing it at full speed.

20. Violon d’Ingres

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is also a trained operatic tenor. Condoleezza Rice is also a concert pianist. And the acclaimed 18th-19th century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres also just happened to be an exceptionally talented violinist. Because he was so skilled in two entirely different fields, Ingres inspired the French expression violon d’Ingres (literally “Ingres’s violin”), which refers to a hidden talent or pastime, far outside of what you are best known for, and in which you are just as knowledgeable or adept.

This story originally ran in 2014.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

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iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

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