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30 Little-Used Loanwords To Add Some Je Ne Sais Quoi To Your Vocabulary

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Thanks to the Norman Conquest and the vogue for all things continental during the Renaissance and beyond, anything from a quarter to a third of all the words in the English language are said to be able to trace their immediate origins back to French. That said, the majority of French words in English have been present in the language for so long now that they scarcely register as French words today, like question (13th century), continue (14th century), and pedigree (originally another word for a genealogical diagram, 15th century). Other French loanwords—surveillance, legionnaire, reconnoiter, etiquette, and accompany, to name a few—are more obvious, but even these are now so naturalized that their French pronunciations have long since disappeared.

And then there are those words that have found their way into English dictionaries, but remain quintessentially French—and there’s a lot more to this last group than just pâtés, crèmes brûlées and coups d’état. Add some je ne sais quoi to your vocabulary with these little-known French loanwords.

1. À CONTRE-COEUR

First used in English around the turn of the 19th century, to do something à contre-coeur is to do it reluctantly, or against your will or better judgment; it literally means “against your heart.”

2. APERÇU

A form of the French word apercevoir, “to perceive,” an aperçu is a telling insight or a quick, revealing glimpse of something.

3. ARRIÈRE-PENSÉE

Literally a “back-thought,” arrière-pensée is another word for what we might otherwise call an ulterior motive.

4. ARRIVISTE

Arriviste has been used in English since the early 1900s. It essentially means “arrival” or “arriver,” but is typically used specifically in the sense of someone intent on making a name for themselves, or else a brash, conspicuous newcomer yet to fit into their new surroundings.

5. ATTENTISME

Derived from a French word meaning “wait” or “expectation,” attentisme is another word for patience or perseverance, or else what we’d more likely refer to as “the waiting game.”

6. BADINEUR

English speakers have been using the French loanword badinage to refer to witty, playful banter since the mid-1600s. Much less well known is the word for someone who indulges in precisely that: namely, a badineur.

7. BIENSÉANCE

Bienséance is an old word for decorum, propriety, or social decency, first borrowed into English in the 17th century. At its root, bienséance derives from an old French verb, seoir, meaning “to be suitable for” or “to be appropriately situated”—which is also the origin of séance, which literally means “a sitting.”

8. BOUFFAGE

A bouffage is a satisfying meal or feast. According to the bilingual Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), it means “any meat that (eaten greedily) fills the mouth and makes the cheeks to swell.”

9. CROQUIS

Derived from a French verb meaning “to sketch,” a croquis (pronounced “cro-kee”) is a quick drawing or rough draft of something to be improved on later.

10. DÉBOUCHÉ

The French verb déboucher means “to clear” or “unblock,” or by extension, “to uncork a bottle.” Derived from that, the English verb debouch means “to move from an enclosed space to an open one,” and in that sense has been used typically in reference to military maneuvers since the early 1800s. The derivative noun débouché can ultimately be used to refer to any opening, outlet, or exit where debouching can take place—or, figuratively, a gap in the market for selling a new product.

11. ÉMEUTE

Derived from a verb meaning “to agitate” or “to move,” in French an émeute is a riot, or more broadly, chaos or disruption. It has been used in English to refer to a social uprising or disturbance since the late 1700s.

12. FAROUCHE

The adjective farouche comes to us from a French word with a similar meaning, which itself probably derives from a Latin word meaning “living outside.” Because of the timid behavior of wild animals, however, in English farouche tends to be used to mean “shy” or “socially reserved,” and by extension, “sullen” or “ill-humored.”

13. FROIDEUR

Froideur is the French word for coldness, but in English is used more figuratively to refer to a “cooling” or “chilling” of a relationship—and in particular a business or diplomatic one.

14. GOBEMOUCHE

A gobemouche is an especially credulous person. It literally means “fly-swallower.”

15. JUSQU’AUBOUTISME

Jusqu’au bout essentially means “to the limit” or “to the very end” in French. Derived from that, the term jusqu’auboutisme emerged in France during the First World War to refer to a policy of absolute unwavering perseverance—that is, of continuing to fight until the bitter end or when a full and lasting conclusion to the conflict could finally be reached. The term first appeared in English in that context in a newspaper report in 1917, but its meaning has steadily broadened and weakened since then: nowadays, feel free to use jusqu’auboutisme to refer to any dogged determination to see something through to its final conclusion.

16. MACÉDOINE

For some reason, in 18th century French the word macédoine—which literally means “Macedonia” or “Macedonian”—came to refer to a medley of chopped fruit, and ultimately a random assortment or mixture of unrelated things; it was in this latter sense that the word was first borrowed into English in the early 19th century and has remained in albeit infrequent use ever since. One theory claims that this word alludes to the supposed melting pot of peoples and cultures that were all once united under Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire—but in truth, no one is entirely sure where this term comes from.

17. NOCEUR

Derived from an old French verb meaning “to celebrate” or “to marry,” a noceur is a party-animal, or someone who habitually stays up late and into the early hours.

18. ORAGE

Orage (which is pronounced more like collage or mirage than forage or porridge) is a French word for a storm or tempest. It has been used in that literal sense in English since the late 15th century, but nowadays tends only to be used more figuratively to refer to any wild or tempestuous situation.

19. PLAISANTEUR

A derivative of a French verb meaning “to jest” or “quip,” a plaisanteur is a witty talker or storyteller.

20. PORTE-BONHEUR

Bonheur is the French word for luck or good fortune, while the prefix porte– (derived from the verb porter, meaning “to carry”) is used to form words implying some sense of holding or bearing something. Put together, that makes a porte-bonheur a good luck charm, or else an amulet or talisman carried to protect against misfortune. Likewise …

21. PORTE-MONNAIE

… a porte-monnaie is a purse or wallet.

22. POURBOIRE

Money—and in particular a tip or gratuity—intended only to spend on drink is a pourboire.

23. POURPARLER

Derived from an Old French verb meaning “to speak for” or “to speak on behalf of,” the word pourparler was borrowed into English from French in the early 1700s to refer to a casual discussion that takes place before a more formal meeting or negotiation. In modern French the plural, pourparlers, is equivalent to what English speakers would call “talks.”

24. PUDEUR

Borrowed into English in the late 19th century, pudeur is bashfulness or reticence, or else a feeling of shame or embarrassment.

25. RASTAQUOUÈRE

A rastaquouère (pronounced “rasta-kwair”) is an overbearing or ostentatious outsider, and in particular one that is viewed with suspicion or curiosity by the locals, or else who tries to ingratiate themselves into the local area. The term dates back to mid 19th century France, where it originally referred to members of a wave of nouveau riche Mediterranean and South American traders and businessmen who arrived in Paris in the mid-1800s, but failed to fit in with the city’s stuffy upper classes. At the word’s root is an insult for a contemptible person in South American Spanish, rastracuero, which in turn combines the Spanish words for “drag” or “dragged,” and “leather” or “animal hide.”

26. RÉCHAUFFÉ

First used in English in the 15th century and seemingly independently borrowed again in the 1700s, réchauffé literally means “reheated,” and in a literal sense is used to describe a premade reheated meal, or else a dish made from leftovers. In both English and French, however, réchauffé can also be used figuratively to describe rehashed, unoriginal, derivative literature or ideas.

27. RETARDATAIRE

Derived from a French word for someone who is late in arriving or paying a bill, as a noun retardataire means “a person whose work or interests appear old fashioned, stuck in the past, or stubbornly resistant to modern change,” but more specifically the word is often used to refer to a contemporary artist who produces work in an old-fashioned or earlier genre or style. As an adjective, it can be used to describe anything or anyone out of touch or behind the times.

28. SIMPLISTE

Borrowed into English in the early 1900s, a simpliste is someone who holds a naively over-simplified or blinkered view of something.

29. SOIGNÉ

The French verb soigner, meaning “to care” is the source of the adjective soigné (“swan-yay”), which has been used to describe anything or anyone meticulously well-presented or well-groomed, or showing extreme attention to detail, ever since it was borrowed into English in the early 1800s.

30. SOUFFRE-DOULEUR

Souffre-douleur literally means “suffer-sorrow,” and has been used in English since the mid 19th century to refer to someone who is obliged to listen to or share in another person’s troubles or problems. Rather than just refer to friends or companions sharing one another’s misfortunes, however, in particular souffre-douleur refers to anyone whose lowly position or employment involves them having to put up with listening to their superiors’ personal problems.

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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