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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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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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