French and English have a long linguistic history and it is safe to say that English wouldn’t be the language it is today without its French influences over the past thousand years. Not only do countless English words have their origin in French (and therefore Latin), but English uses French sayings with a much higher frequency than sayings from any other language. But did you know that there are French phrases in English the French wouldn’t understand?
As one might expect, over a long period of time and with a large percentage of English speakers unable to speak French, those phrases have taken on a life of their own over the years. While some of the words and phrases have remained the same (chic, genre, bon appetit), others have continued changing so that a native French speaker would not recognise the outcome and intended meaning. Here are a few examples of French phrases in English the French wouldn’t understand:
- double entendre – In English, when we want to hint at or allude to something and do not use the word ‘innuendo’, the phrase double entendre is sometimes used. Often, this is used when a sentence has a normal meaning and an additional risqué (look, another French word) meaning. While both double (Engl: double) and entendre (Engl: to understand) are French words in use today, the combination would make no sense to a French speaker. The phrase(s) used today in French is double entente (Engl: double understanding) or double sens (double meaning) but double entendre would not be understood if you were to tell a risqué joke in Paris.
- encore – If you want more from a performer after their performance in English is over, the audience often shouts encore, which means ‘still’ or ‘again’ in French. In French, when an audience wants more from the performer, they use the Latin word Bis meaning ‘twice’. When seeing a theatre performance or your favourite francophone singer in concert, keep in mind what you should shout to get the act to perform again.
- En suite – When checking into a hotel or buying a new home, you may be offered an en suite bathroom (sometimes just referred to just as the en suite, which includes the toilet, sink and bathing facility of a shower, bath, a combination of the two or both separately. The bedroom may be called an ‘en suite bedroom’, meaning it has a bathroom attached), meaning that the entrance to said room is through the bedroom to which it is attached. This comes from the same phrase in French meaning ‘in sequence/agreement/harmony’, but it would never be used to describe a bathroom that is accessed through the bedroom.
- Décolletage – This word comes to English from the world of fashion and refers in English to a low neckline on a woman’s dress. This word originally comes from the French verb décolleter (Engl: to expose the neck) and was made into a noun in English using the -age ending, which also comes from French. When used in the fashion world, it still refers to the neckline. When someone not connected with the fashion world decides to use this word (admittedly, this is somewhat of a rarity), it is used to refer to a woman’s bosom, especially when it is on display, as is the case when wearing a low neckline.
- Léger de main (legerdemain) – Literally meaning ‘light of hand’ but meaning ‘sleight of hand’, this phrase refers to deception, conjuring and magic tricks that are performed on stages in front of audiences that fool them into believing in magic. In French, this phrase simply does not exist, so do not describe the father of conjuring, French magician Robert-Houdin as a legerdemain.
- Dossier – In English, a dossier is a file that contains information about a person. For example, the police have dossiers on suspects in cases. However, in French used today, it is the general term for any kind of file, including computer files.
- Dressage – In English, dressage is a type of competitive horse training while in French, the term refers to the taming of any animal. Just think about tiger dressage!
- In lieu (of) – This phrase is actually a half-translation of the French phrase au lieu and means ‘in place of’. In lieu of using in lieu, remember to use au lieu for replacing one thing with another on your holiday!
- Maître d’ – In French, this term is used to refer to the head waiter (maître d’hôtel – master of the house) or the head of service. In English, this phrase can stand alone, as in ‘he is the maître d’ of the establishment’, whereas in French this is not possible.
- Negligée – in English, this word refers to a ladies’ dressing gown made of soft fabric. French uses very similar terms for the same thing. However the term negligée refers to a woman who has neglected her appearance. So if you are travelling around France and you wish to refer to your dressing gown in your hotel room, don’t tell a prospective date about the negligée in your room!
- Je ne sais quoi – ‘When Alice walked into the room, she had this je ne sais quoi that caught everyone’s attention’. In French, je ne sais quoi refers to something that is indescribable or hard to describe, like the characteristic of our heroine Alice, and literally means ‘I don’t know what’. In English, we take this meaning one step further. In addition to being indescribable, it is also alluring or attractive, making the speaker want to know more and/or be around the person or thing generating the je ne sais quoi quality or atmosphere.
This phenomenon is certainly not unique to English. With the interconnectedness of the world, languages around the world are exchanging words and phrases at speeds never seen before. The Internet is naturally playing a large role, allowing for instant communication between peoples and languages around the world that may not have had the chance to engage previously.
Japanese may be one of the most prominent examples as it even has an entire alphabet dedicated to writing loan words, but it is certainly not the only one. French has adopted le week-end to describe Saturday and Sunday (which English speakers would understand) and German uses the word das Handy for a mobile phone (which is less intelligible for an English speaker. Note: das Smartphone also exists and is used to specify that the mobile in question is above average intelligence).
If you are interested in more articles like this, make sure to check out my Teaching English page for articles on other topics, ranging from International Phonetic Alphabet and Phonemic Alphabets to Contronyms.