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20 French Phrases You Should Be Using

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As much as 30 percent of the English language—or roughly one in three English words—is believed to be 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

À la basically means “in the style of” or “according to,” and is the root of phrases like à la mode (“stylish”), and à la carte (“on the menu”). À la débandade—literally “like a stampede”was originally a military term dating 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 mightn’t 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 in 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 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 (fifteen 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, whose crime drama Les Mohicans de Paris (1854) contains its first written record: “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 thunderbolt or strike of lightning, but 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 in 1773 that while visiting the French finance minister 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 early 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 fifteen 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 effected 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 is the origin of 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 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 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 mindboggling visual effect of a recurring image containing itself into infinity—like a mirror reflected in a mirror.

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 person’s 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 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-marshaled 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 14 March 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. ROI FAINÉANT

Fainéant is basically the French equivalent of a lazybones or a do-nothing, which makes a roi fainéant literally a “do-nothing king.” The term dates back to the 16th century in France, but has been used since the 1700s in English to refer to a monarch or leader who has no real power and instead acts merely as a figurehead, or as a symbol of power or authority.

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. Originally, however, it 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.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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Why Are Small, Fancy Hats Called Fascinators?
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Even if you aren't invested in the lives of British royals, it will be worth tuning in to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding on May 19 for a glimpse at all the elaborate headgear. Fascinators—tiny, elaborate hats that are clipped to the wearer's head—are a popular fashion choice among the women of the royal family today. The name may seem like a perfect fit for the eye-catching accessory, but as Co.Design explains, the hat was called something entirely different until the 1960s.

The term fascinator first surfaced in the fashion world in 17th-century Europe. Back then, it referred to a lacy scarf women wrapped around their heads (or "fastened," hence the name). Rather than attracting stares from across the room, this version of the hat was meant to give women an alluring air of mystery. By the mid 20th-century, a slew of new hat styles hit the scene, leaving both the term fascinator and the garment it described to fall out of fashion.

In the 1960s, a New York milliner named John P. John decided it was time for the fascinator to make a comeback. Instead of thinking about the headpiece in its original sense, however, he used the name to rebrand the petite cocktail hats that were known at the time as clip-hats or half-hats. The sexy new name helped the already-popular design become even trendier.

Fascinators aren't that common in the U.S., but they're a staple of high-profile royal events in the UK. Princess Beatrice realized the accessory's full potential when she debuted her now-iconic fascinator at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (She eventually auctioned it off on eBay for charity, where it sold for a cool $130,000.) As a result, her head will be the one to watch when she arrives at her cousin Harry's wedding this Saturday.

[h/t Co.Design]

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