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.”
A form of the French word apercevoir, “to perceive,” an aperçu is a telling insight or a quick, revealing glimpse of something.
Literally a “back-thought,” arrière-pensée is another word for what we might otherwise call an ulterior motive.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
A gobemouche is an especially credulous person. It literally means “fly-swallower.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
A derivative of a French verb meaning “to jest” or “quip,” a plaisanteur is a witty talker or storyteller.
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 …
… a porte-monnaie is a purse or wallet.
Money—and in particular a tip or gratuity—intended only to spend on drink is a pourboire.
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.”
Borrowed into English in the late 19th century, pudeur is bashfulness or reticence, or else a feeling of shame or embarrassment.
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.”
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.
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.
Borrowed into English in the early 1900s, a simpliste is someone who holds a naively over-simplified or blinkered view of something.
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.
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.