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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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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

Up-close shot of an overweight man measuring his belly.
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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

"Keep it Simple" written in book
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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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