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French Phrases and Sayings that are used in English

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French Phrases

Here's a list of French phrases and sayings that are used in English often enough to have become part of the language. Many of these relate to those French preoccupations, fashion and food.

À la carte

On the menu, with each dish priced.

À la mode

Fashionable; also, in the USA, with ice cream.

Agent provocateur

'Provocative agent' - a spy employed to induce or incite a suspected person or group to commit an incriminating act.

Aide-de-camp

An officer who assists a general in his military duties.

Aide-mémoire

An aid to memory.

Après-ski

Socializing after a skiing session. Also a name of a type of footwear worn after removing ski boots.

Art déco

'Decorative art' - a style of art originating in Paris in the early 20th century. An eclectic and glamourous artform, taking in aspects of Cubism and geometric industrial design.

Art nouveau

'New art' - a style of art developed towards the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by ornamentation based on organic or foliate forms and by its asymmetric and curvaceous lines.

Au contraire

To the contrary. Often used with an arch or rather camp form of delivery.

Au fait To be conversant with; familiar with.
Au gratin 'With gratings' - in French, anything that is grated onto a food dish. In English, specifically 'with cheese'.

Au naturel

Undressed or 'in a natural state'.

Au pair

A young foreigner, usually female, who undertakes domestic tasks in exchange for accommodation.

Au revoir

Farewell for the time being. Sometimes given in English in the jokey au reservoir version.

Avant garde

The pioneers or innovators in art in a particular period. Also, a military term, meaning vanguard or advance guard.

Belle époque 'Beautiful era' - the golden age of art and culture in France in the early 20th century.
Bête noire A pet peeve. A thing or person found particularly unwelcome and to be avoided.
Billet doux A short love letter or note.
Bon appétit 'Good appetite' - "Enjoy your food".
Bon mot Clever, witty remark.
Bon vivant 'Good liver' - a person who enjoys life, especially 'wine, women and song'.
Bon voyage Have a good trip.

Ça ne fait rien (or sans faire rien)

It doesn't matter - often deliberately mispronounced in English as 'San fairy Ann'.

Café au lait Coffee with milk.

Carte blanche

Having free rein to choose whatever course of action you want.

Cause célèbre An issue arousing widespread controversy or debate. An English invention, rarely used in France.

C'est la vie

That's life or such is life. Often used in disappointed resignation following some bad fortune.

Chaise longue

'Long chair' - a form of sofa with an elongated seat long enough to support the legs. Often erroneously called a chaise lounge in the USA. This isn't the derivation of either the noun or verb lounge, which both long pre-date the invention of chaise longues.

Chargé d'affaires A diplomat, temporarily in charge of business.

Cherchez la femme

Literally, "look for the woman."

Cinéma vérité

A form of filmmaking that combines documentary-style techniques to tell a story.

Cordon bleu High quality, especially of cooking.
Cordon sanitaire A political or medical buffer zone.

Coup d'état

An abrupt overthrow of a government through unconstitutional means, for example, by force, or by occupation of government structures during the leader's absence.

Coup de grâce Originally a blow by which one condemned or mortally wounded is 'put out of his misery'. Figuratively, a finishing stroke, one that settles or puts an end to something.
Crème brûlée 'Burnt cream' - baked custard with a carmelized crust
Crème caramel A flan. A custard dessert with a layer or caramel on top.

Crème de la crème

The best of the best. Literally the cream of the cream.

Cri de coeur 'Cry of the heart' - a heartfelt cry of anguish.

Cul-de-sac

A thoroughfare that is closed at one end - a blind alley. Also, figuratively, a venture leading to no successful outcome.

Déjà vu

The feeling of having seen or experienced something before. Literally 'already seen'.

De rigueur

Obligatory or expected, especially with reference to fashion.

Double entendre

A word or phrase that has a double meaning - one of which is often vulgar or sexual in nature. A staple form of British toilet humour - Carry On films would be virtually silent without it; for example, see 'gone for a P' in wee-wee.

Du jour 'Of the day' - as in 'soup du jour' ('soup of the day').

Éminence grise

A powerful adviser or decision-maker who operates secretly or unofficially. Literally 'grey eminence'.

Enfant terrible

Literally, a "terrible child". It is sometimes used to describe unruly children. More commonly, it is used in relation to adults who cause trouble by unorthodox or ill-considered speech or behaviour - especially those who have habitually done this from an early age.

En masse In a group; all together.
En passant In passing.

En route

On the way.

En suite

Part of a set, especially a series of rooms that adjoin each other forming a suite.

Esprit de corps

The regard entertained by the members of a group, especially a military unit, for the honour and interests of the group as a whole. Literally, 'spirit of the corps'.

Fait accompli

An irreversible action that has happened before those affected by it knew of its existence.

Faux pas

A social blunder, causing embarrassment or loss of reputation. Literally, a 'false step'.

Film noir A bleak cinematographic style, usually dark visually and in storyline terms.

Femme fatale

A dangerously attractive woman.

Fleur de Lis
The heraldic lily; a device supposed by some to have originally represented an iris, by others the top of a sceptre, of a battle-axe or other weapon.

Force majeure

Irresistible force or overwhelming power.

Grand prix

The premier events of several sports, especially the races in the Formula I motor racing championship. Literally, 'grand prize'.

Haute couture

'High sewing' - trend-setting high fashion. Also, the collective name for the leading dressmakers and designers.

Haute cuisine

High class cooking. Literally, 'upper kitchen'.

Hors de combat 'Out of combat' - unable to fight.
Hors d'oeuvres
An extra dish served as a relish to whet the appetite, normally at the start of a meal.
Je ne sais quoi An indescribable or inexpressible something. Literally, 'I know not what'.

Joie de vivre

A feeling of healthy enjoyment of life; exuberance, high spirits.

Laissez-faire

The principle that government should not interfere with the action of individuals. Also, more generally, a policy of indulgence towards the actions of others. Literally, 'let (people) do (as they think best)'.

L'esprit de l'escalier

This isn't actually widely adopted into English. I include it here in the hope that it might become so. It means - thinking of a suitable retort or remark after the opportunity to make it has passed. Literally, 'the wit of the staircase'.

Mal de mer Seasickness.

Mardi gras

The last day of the Carnival or pre-Lenten season. Literally, 'Fat Tuesday', called Shrove Tuesday in the UK.

Ménage à trois

'Household of three' - three people in a sexual relationship.

Merci beaucoup

Thank you very much.

Mot juste Exactly the right word or expression.

N'est-ce pas?

Is it not so?

Noblesse oblige

The responsibility conferred by rank. Literally, 'noble rank entails responsibility'.

Nom de guerre A name assumed by individuals engaged in a military enterprise or espionage, usually in order to conceal their true identity. Literally, 'war name'.

Nom de plume

An assumed name under which a person writes or publishes. Literally, 'pen name'.

Nouveau riche 'Newly rich' - a snobbish term for a persoon who has come into money but has not developed the manners expected of wealthy people.
Nouvelle cuisine A form of cooking of the mid 20th century that emphasized lightness and decorative form.
Objet d'art An 'art object'.
Papier mâché A material used for scultural artwork and craftwork. Literally 'mashed paper'.

Par excellence

Pre-eminently supreme - above all others.

Pas de deux

Impossible to avoid the corny 'father of twins' joke here. The real meaning is a dance (typically a ballet), and in extended use a partnership, between two people.

Petit four A small dessert - usually a dainty cake.
Petit mal 'Small illness' - a mild epilepsy.
Petit point Small stitching, used in needlepoint.

Pièce de résistance

The best part or feature of something, especially of a meal.

Pied-à-terre

A second home, typically an apartment in the city.

Prêt-à-porter

Ready-to-wear clothing.

Pot-pourri

A mixture of dried petals of different flowers mixed with spices, kept in a jar for its perfume. Also, a stew made from a variety of meats cooked together. By extension, any collection of miscellaneous items.

Quelle horreur

What a horrible thing. This is frequently used sardonically, when the 'horror' is trivial.

Qu'est-ce que c'est?

What is this?

Raison d'être

The thing that is central to our existence. Literally, 'reason for being'.

RSVP Please respond (to my message). Literally the abbreviation of 'Répondez, s'il vous plaît'.

Sacré bleu

This general mild exclamation of shock is the archetypal French phrase, as viewed by the English. No portrayal of a stage Frenchman in an English farce could be complete without a character in a beret and striped jumper, shrugging his shoulders and muttering 'Sacré bleu!'. Literally, 'holy blue', which refers to the colour associated with the Virgin Mary.

Sang-froid

Coolness, indifference. Literally, 'cold blood'.

Savoir-faire

Social grace; means know-how in French.

S'il vous plaît

Please. Literally, 'if it pleases you'.

Soupe du jour

'Soup of the day' - the soup offered by a restaurant that day.

Table d'hôte

A full-course meal offering a limited number of choices and served at a fixed price in a restaurant or hotel.

Tête-à-tête

A private meeting between two people. Literally, 'head-to-head'.

Tout de suite At once.

Tour de force

A masterly stroke or feat of strength or skill. Literally, 'feat of strength'.

Trompe l'œil

An art technique involving high levels of realism in order to create the illusion that the depicted objects are real rather than paintings. Literally, 'trick the eye'.

Vis-à-vis

In a position facing another. Literally 'face to face'. Often now used in the sense of 'in relation to'.

Vive la différence.

Long live the difference (between male and female).

Vol-auvent A small, light savoury pastry. Literally 'flight of the wind'.

Zut alors

A general exclamation. Like Sacré bleu, this is more likely to be spoken by pretend Frenchmen than by real ones.

See also - Latin phrases in English.