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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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