20 French Phrases You Should Be Using


According to some estimates, 30 percent of the English language—or roughly one in three English words—is derived directly from French. It’s a surprisingly high figure due in part to the Norman Conquest of 1066, which made French the language of the law, finance, government, the military, and the ruling classes in England, and effectively doubled our vocabulary overnight. But the popularity of French culture and French literature among English speakers has also given our language a whole host of other words and phrases—like mardi gras, avant garde, déjà vu, and femme fatale—that are now so naturalized in English that they can be used without a second thought.

Alongside everyday examples like these, however, English has also adopted a number of much less familiar French phrases that, despite their potential usefulness, go tragically underused. So why not add a little je ne sais quoi to your everyday conversation with these 20 little-known French expressions?

1. À la débandade

The phrase à la is well-known to English speakers for meaning “in the style of” or “according to,” and is seen in phrases like à la mode (“according to the fashion”), and à la carte (“on the menu”). À la débandade—literally “like a stampede”—was originally a military term that in English dates from the 18th century, when it was first used to refer to an informal or random course of action, or else a disorderly, scattering retreat or rout. More recently it’s come to be used figuratively in English to describe a disorderly or chaotic mess.

2. Amour fou

Used in English since the early 1900s, an amour fou is an uncontrollable and obsessive passion for someone, and in particular one that is not reciprocated. It literally means “insane love.”

3. L’appel du vide

Alongside l’esprit de l’escalier (more on that later), the French expression l’appel du vide often makes its way onto lists of foreign words and phrases that have no real English equivalent. It literally means “the call of the void,” but in practice it’s usually explained as the bizarre inclination some people have for doing something dangerous or deadly, no matter how foolish they know it is. So when you’re standing on a beach, l’appel du vide is the voice that tells you to swim away and never come back. When standing on a clifftop, l’appel du vide tells you to throw yourself off. There might not be an obvious English equivalent, but the concept of l’appel du vide is related to the psychological notion of intrusive thoughts, and the mythological song of the Siren blamed for luring sailors to their doom.

4. Après moi, le déluge

Après moi, le déluge means “after me, the flood,” and is used to refer to a person’s irresponsible or selfish lack of concern about what will happen after they have gone or moved on. Today it’s often associated with politicians and CEOs looking to secure their own interests at the expense of other people’s, but popular (and likely apocryphal) history claims the words were first used by the French king Louis XV, who repeatedly disregarded warnings of discontent among the French people in the lead up to the French Revolution. When the Revolution finally broke out in 1789 (15 years after Louis’s death), it eventually led to the execution of his grandson, King Louis XVI, in 1793.

5. Cherchez la femme

Literally meaning “look for the woman,” cherchez la femme is used in English to imply that if a man is seen acting out of character, then a woman will likely be the cause of it—find her, and the issue will be resolved. Although the origins of the phrase are a mystery, it’s often credited to the French author Alexandre Dumas, père, and his crime story Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-9). Most famously, when the story was later adapted to the stage, a character announced: “Il y a une femme dans toutes les affaires; aussitôt qu'on me fait un rapport, je dis: 'Cherchez la femme.'” (“There is a woman in all cases; as soon as a report is brought to me I say, ‘Cherchez la femme!’”)

6. Coup de foudre

Coup de foudre is the French term for a strike of lightning, and it’s been used figuratively in English since the late 1700s to mean love at first sight.

7. L’esprit de l’escalier

Known less romantically as “staircase wit” in English, l’esprit de l’escalier is the frustrating phenomenon of coming up with the perfect observation or comeback after the opportunity to use it has passed. The phrase was apparently coined by the 18th century French writer Diderot, who wrote that while visiting the French statesman Jacques Necker, a comment was made to which Diderot was unable to respond. “A sensitive man […] overcome by the argument leveled against him,” he wrote, “becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the staircase.”

8. Honi soit qui mal y pense

“Shame on him who thinks badly of it,” warns the old Norman French saying honi soit qui mal y pense, which has been used in English to discourage preemptively or unjustly talking something down since the Middle Ages. The saying has been the motto of The Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious honor awarded in Great Britain, since it was introduced in 1348.

9. Mauvais quart d’heure

As well as having your 15 minutes of fame, you can also have your mauvais quart d’heure (or your “bad quarter of an hour”)—a brief but embarrassing, upsetting, or demoralizing experience.

10. Mauvaise honte

Mauvaise honte literally means “bad shame.” In English it’s often used simply to mean bashfulness or extreme shyness, but in its earliest and original sense mauvaise honte has been used since the 18th century to refer to false or affected modesty, in which someone pretends to have a low opinion of themselves or their abilities.

11. Mise en abyme

The French word mise essentially means “that which is put,” and as such appears in a number of phrases that refer to things being deliberately placed or arranged: a mise en scène is the dressing of a theatrical stage, a mise en page is the design or layout of a book or page of text, and mise en place is now widely known as the preparation and organization of all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Mise en abyme is a much less familiar expression that was originally only used in heraldry: the abyme is the center segment of a shield or a coat of arms, and in a mise en abyme this central section is decorated with a smaller image of the same shield. So because this means that this small central image must—in theory, though rarely in practice—in turn also contain a small central image of itself (which must in turn also contain the same image, and so on, and so on), the phrase mise en abyme (“put into the abyss”) is used to refer to the mind-boggling visual effect of a recurring image containing itself into infinity—like a mirror reflected in a mirror, or, more literarily, a story within a story or a play within a play.

12. Nostalgie de la boue

The phrase nostalgie de la boue was coined by the French dramatist Émile Augier in 1855, who used it to refer to a fondness for cruel, crude, depraved, or humiliating things. Its meaning has extended over time, however, so that today a nostalgie de la boue is often used more loosely to refer to a desire to live a simpler, downsized, or less indulgent life—it literally means “a yearning for the mud.”

13. Plus ça change

In 1849 an article appeared in a satirical French magazine that denounced the country’s current political situation. Written by a French journalist named Alphonse Karr, the article pessimistically concluded that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing.” Karr’s words soon stuck and by the early 1900s plus ça change had even been adopted into English as a motto indicating a world-weary acceptance of the current state of affairs—although things might appear to change or improve, beneath it all they remain just as bad as before.

14. Pour encourager les autres

The ironic expression pour encourager les autres—meaning “so as to encourage the others”—actually refers to an action carried out to discourage any future unrest or rebellion. It was first used in this context by French journalists—and Voltaire—in the 18th century following the execution of an English admiral named John Byng. After a long and well-respected naval career, Byng was court-martialed by the Royal Navy in 1757 for having apparently failed to do his utmost in preventing the French from invading the British-held island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean. Although the charges brought against Byng were trumped-up (and, according to some, politically motivated)—and despite even King George II himself being petitioned to overturn Byng’s death sentence—he was executed by firing squad on board his own ship in Portsmouth Harbour on March 14, 1757. Understandably, the entire situation proved hugely controversial in England, and at the height of Britain’s Seven Years’ War against France became a major news story and source of much anti-British propaganda all across Europe.

15. Reculer pour mieux sauter

If you reculer pour mieux sauter, then you literally “draw back in order to leap better.” Derived from an old French proverb, the phrase is used figuratively in both French and English to refer to a temporary withdrawal or pause in action that allows for time to regroup or reassess a situation, and therefore make a better attempt at it in the future.

16. Revenons à nos moutons

You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding why someone might say “let us return to our sheep” mid-conversation, but revenons à nos moutons has been used figuratively in English for more than 400 years to mean “let us return to the matter at hand.” The phrase comes from a 15th century French farce, La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin, that became one of the most popular stage comedies of its day. It’s this popularity that no doubt helped this line—taken from a central courtroom scene in which one character, accused of stealing sheep, is advised by his lawyer to answer all of the prosecutor’s questions by baaing—to catch on in the language.

17. Foi fainéant

Fainéant is basically the French equivalent of someone who’s lazy or do-nothing, which makes a roi fainéant literally a “do-nothing king.” The term dates back at least to the 16th century in France and in English has been used since the 1700s. Originally, it referred to the Merovingian kings, who near the end of their dynasty increasingly served as figureheads with no real power. By the 19th century it extended to any ruler in a similar situation.

18. Tant bien que mal

Tant bien que mal has been used in English since the 18th century to describe anything that is only partly or moderately successful. It literally means “as well as badly.”

19. Ventre à terre

Ventre à terre literally means “belly to the ground” in French, and so, taken literally, it can be used simply to describe someone or something lying face-down (in the early 19th century it was used to refer to asking for a “pardon in a most abject position”). The modern English meaning, however, was a term from horse racing, and referred to a horse going at full gallop—so fast that its forelegs are thrown out in front, its hind legs are thrown out backwards, and its belly is directly above the ground. Doing something ventre à terre, ultimately means doing it at full speed.

20. Violon d’Ingres

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is also a trained operatic tenor. Condoleezza Rice is also a concert pianist. And the acclaimed 18th-19th century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres also just happened to be an exceptionally talented violinist. Because he was so skilled in two entirely different fields, Ingres inspired the French expression violon d’Ingres (literally “Ingres’s violin”), which refers to a hidden talent or pastime, far outside of what you are best known for, and in which you are just as knowledgeable or adept.

This story originally ran in 2014.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images
AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”