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.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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12 Old-Fashioned Insults We Should Bring Back

mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images
mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images

With the help of social media, slang words and phrases can gain momentum around the globe in what feels like mere minutes. But trendy terms were making splashes long before YouTubers were stanning guyliner-wearing pop stars who slay all day and woke Gen Z-ers were tweeting their hot takes about fake news, mansplaining, and more.

In a new study, digital subscription service Readly analyzed data from its magazine archives to identify some popular terms from years past and present and pinpoint exactly when they stopped appearing in print. Among more positive terms like crinkum-crankum (“elaborate decoration or detail”) and sweetmeat (“item of confectionery or sweet food”) lies a treasure trove of delicious insults that have all but disappeared—and could definitely add some color to your future squabbles.

View Readly’s full timeline of terms here, and read on to find out which insults were our favorites.

1. Loathly

This alternate form of loathsome, meaning “repulsive,” had an impressive run as an insult for nearly 900 centuries, starting in 1099 and not falling out of public favor until 1945.

2. Purblind

According to the Merriam-Webster entry, purblind originally meant “blind” during the 1400s, and later became a way to indicate shortsightedness or lack of insight.

3. Poltroon

The next time you encounter an “utter coward,” you can call them a poltroon. They’re probably too much of a poltroon to ask you what poltroon means.

4. Slugabed

Though this term for “a person who stays in bed late” hasn’t been used much since the early 20th century, it’s the perfect insult for your roommate who perpetually hits the snooze button.

5. Mooncalf

This obscure term for a foolish person also once meant a "fickle, unstable person," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

6. Fainéant

Fainéant derives from fait-nient, French for “doing nothing.” Its tenure as a popular insult for “an idle or ineffective person” lasted from 1619 to 1670, but the fainéants themselves didn’t disappear with the term—there’s one in practically every group project.

7. Otiose

If you want to pack an extra punch when you accuse someone of being a fainéant, you could also call them otiose, meaning “lazy” or “slothful.”

8. Scaramouch

In Italy’s commedia dell’arte—a type of theatre production with ensemble casts, improvisation, and masks—Scaramouch was a stock character easily identified by his boastful-yet-cowardly manner. Much like scrooge is now synonymous with miser, the word scaramouch was used from the 1600s through the 1800s to describe any boastful coward. Wondering why the obsolete expression sounds so familiar? The band Queen borrowed it for their operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though scaramouches aren’t necessarily known for doing the fandango.

9. Quidnunc

From the Latin phrase quid nunc, or “What now?”, a quidnunc is an “inquisitive, bossy person” who’s constantly sniffing around for the next juicy morsel of gossip. Usage dropped off in the early 20th century, but you can always bring it back for that friend who unabashedly reads your text messages over your shoulder.

10. Sciolist

A sciolist is someone “who pretends to be knowledgeable.” Though they might fool a mooncalf or two, any expert would see through their facade.

11. and 12. Rapscallion and Scapegrace

Rapscallion and scapegrace are both wonderful ways to offend a mischievous person—if such a person would even be offended—that overlapped in popularity between the 1700s and the 1900s. While scapegrace refers to an incorrigible character who literally escaped God’s grace, rapscallion is an embellished version of the identically defined (but rather less fun to say) word rascal.

[h/t Readly]

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