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20 Common English Words That Come from French

As languages developed throughout history, words traveled across oceans to foreign lands. New discoveries, inventions, styles, and ingredients were introduced to populations in faraway places. As a result, much of today’s modern English vocabulary is made up of expressions that originated elsewhere. In this article, we will focus on loan words that made their way into our daily vocabulary from France. 

There are a couple of reasons why so many loan words originate specifically from France. Potentially, the most significant contribution was made by a French duke, William the Conqueror. This part of history takes place in 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and was declared the new king. With this change in leadership came a new language. French was considered a language of the nobles and was frequently used in government matters, as well as cultural events and the arts. As a result, people in England began to use these borrowed words in their daily lives and still continue to do so hundreds of years later. 

See also: 100+ Commonly Mispronounced English Words

A quick note about French pronunciation – many French loan words kept their French reading in English. Therefore, some words do not follow the usual English pronunciation rules. The most common points are:

  • Accent markers’ and ` usually indicate that “E” will be read as “eh” (e.g., “forte” is pronounced as “fortay”)
  • The last letter of each word in French is silent (e.g., “faux pas” is pronounced as “fau pa”)
  • “Ch” is pronounced as “sh” (e.g., “niche” is pronounced as “nish”)
  1. Forte

Your forte is your area of expertise. It is the one thing you can do at a much higher-than-average level. In French, forte means strong. This has evolved in English to convey one’s strong point. Additionally, it can be your specialty or a topic you are highly knowledgeable about. For example, one can say that a marathon participant’s forte is running. 

E.g., “I love listening to music, but playing musical instruments is sadly not my forte.” 

  1. Bureaucracy

The word bureaucracy comes from two languages, French and Greek. Bureau means desk or office in the former and power in the latter. This “desk power” refers to overcomplicated administrative procedures, which often result in higher inefficiency. For example, consider how much paperwork would be involved if a construction company wanted to build a new skyscraper in a busy downtown area. The endless forms, stamps, approvals, and restrictions are all part of bureaucracy. 

E.g., “Renewing my driver’s license will take a few weeks thanks to bureaucracy.” 

  1. Niche

Niche is a word that has made its way into many languages, including English. A niche is an area of specialized focus. When talking about products and markets, we can use niche to describe products that target a small, particular demographic. For example, a company that sells clothing for small-sized dogs is operating in a niche market. On the other hand, we can also use niche in casual conversation to refer to unusual hobbies or special interests, such as collecting vintage coins. 

E.g., “The artist’s niche was painting portraits of cats, commissioned by their owners.” 

  1. Déjà vu 

The literal translation of déjà vu is “already seen.” This phenomenon occurs when we are experiencing something for the very first time and yet have a spooky feeling that we have seen it happening before. It can happen with people, places, conversations, or situations. 

E.g., “When I saw the painting in the museum, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu.” 

  1. RSVP

RSVP is an abbreviation of the French phrase “Répondez s’il vous plaît,” meaning “please respond.” We use the word RSVP to ask the guests to confirm their attendance at our event. The register of this expression is quite formal and is used for more serious or professional events. It is commonly found on wedding invitations and digital business meeting invites. Even though it is an abbreviation, we can use it as a verb, too! 

E.g., “Only 20 out of the 100 invited guests have RSVPed so far.” 

See also: 70+ Spanish Words We Use in English

  1. Force majeure

Force majeure, meaning “major force” but often also referred to as an “act of God,” is any circumstance that could not be predicted or expected. It is an event that is entirely out of our control. Earthquakes, floods, pandemics, and tsunamis can all be considered force majeure. To protect themselves, many companies include a clause regarding these events in their contracts with suppliers and buyers. In the case of a force majeure event, the company would not have to pay any fines for contract violations since the situation was impossible to control or foresee. 

E.g., “I didn’t have to pay cancellation fees for my air travel as it was considered force majeure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

  1. Rapport

Rapport is a great word to add to your business vocabulary. Originally meaning “report,” it implies effective communication. Essentially, it means building a good and close relationship with those around you. When meeting a business client for the first time, it is essential to spend a few minutes making small talk about the weather or recent events. These small acts of communication can strengthen the connection between you and your counterpart – that is, rapport. 

E.g., “Teachers must know how to build rapport with their students if they want to develop a sense of trust in the classroom.” 

  1. Faux pas

A faux pas translates to a “false step.” In English, it means making an embarrassing mistake in a social setting. What is considered a faux pas changes depending on the norms and customs of each organization, religion, or country. In less severe breaches, a faux pas will only cause awkwardness. However, a bigger faux pas can result in hurt and offense. 

E.g., “Wearing white to a Western wedding is a faux pas.”

  1. Connoisseur

A connoisseur is someone who is an expert judge. This can refer to any topic but is most frequently used when talking about the arts and food. Originating from the French word “connaitre,” which means “to know,” a connoisseur has extensive knowledge and experience in his specialty. For example, someone who often enjoys eating out and staying up to date with all the new, trendy restaurants in their city can be called a restaurant connoisseur. 

E.g., “Sean became a true wine connoisseur after his long apprenticeship at the Bordeaux vineyard.” 

  1. Expatriate

An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person who is currently living in a country other than their native homeland. This word came about in English from the literal French meaning of “outside the fatherland.” Unlike an immigrant, an expatriate’s stay in a foreign country is usually temporary or fixed term. An office worker who gets transferred to a foreign branch of their company is an expat. 

E.g., “Social media is a great way to find and connect with other expatriates when you are feeling homesick.” 

  1. Heritage

Heritage refers to objects, traditions, and historical buildings that have been passed down from previous generations. The French roots of this word indicate “inheritance.” A popular example of where we can see this word is the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the Taj Mahal in India. These are culturally significant sites or buildings that the organization works to protect and preserve. 

E.g., “Despite having been raised overseas, Jess was deeply proud of her Chinese heritage.”

  1. Laissez-faire

Laissez-faire is the attitude of letting things run their natural course. The original French meaning is “let do,” which basically means “let it be.” This expression is sometimes used in economics to signify minimal government intervention in the market. In our daily lives, we use laissez-faire to describe the mentality of those who do not bother too much with controlling life’s outcomes. 

E.g., “Emily had a laissez-faire attitude to life and strongly believed that problems would eventually resolve themselves.” 

  1. Liaise

Liaise is a verb that involves close collaboration and cooperation. When a businessperson liaises with his clients, they remain in consistent contact and check in on where they stand. Furthermore, a liaison is a middleman assigned as a third party to facilitate communication between two parties. The register of this word is very formal and should be reserved for formal communication. 

E.g., “The Minister of Health must liaise with the heads of various organizations in the wellness industry.”

  1. Ridiculous

Ridiculous and its French root ridicule describe an idea or a situation that makes us laugh due to how absurd it is. This word combines how funny and yet strange something is at the same time. It can be used for trivial things, such as an unusual fashion outfit, or more serious matters, such as a politician’s new policy. When we want to express this feeling, we can use the natural reaction “that’s ridiculous!”. 

E.g., “Did you hear about the ridiculous new dress code rules at the office?”

  1. Souvenir

Souvenirs are items we purchase to remember a place or a moment in time that is special to us, such as taking a trip to a foreign country. The literal translation of this word is “to remember,” which is the exact reason we buy postcards, keychains, and magnets when we travel. 

E.g., “I buy a postcard from every new city I visit to keep as a souvenir.” 

  1. À la carte

Surely, you have seen this phrase printed on a restaurant menu before and wondered what it means. À la carte refers to the part of the menu where you can freely choose individual items rather than opting for a set course. 

E.g., “I have food allergies, so I always order à la carte instead of a set menu.” 

  1. Cul-de-sac

Cul-de-sac is another way to say dead-end street. The idiomatic expression coming from French directly translates to “bottom of the bag,” symbolizing that there is no way forward. We primarily use cul-de-sac in the context of suburban and residential neighborhoods where there are a number of houses surrounding the dead-end road. 

E.g., “The children were playing football at the end of the cul-de-sac.” 

  1. Petite

The literal translation of petite is “small.” However, we attach a different nuance to this word in the English language. It is most commonly used to describe a woman who is very small and thin in an attractive way. We can sometimes see this word printed on clothing tags in popular chain clothing stores, meaning the article of clothing is designed for a smaller group of women. It has a positive connotation and is a compliment. 

E.g., “Since I am only 1.48m in height, I must shop at the petite section of the store.”

  1. En route

En route is an expression very similar to “on the way,” which we use when we are traveling to our destination. The one difference between these two phrases is that “en route” is a little more formal. For example, airline pilots commonly use “en route” when addressing the passengers in the middle of the flight. 

E.g., “The airline representative informed me that my suitcase was lost en route to London.” 

  1. Bon voyage 

Bon voyage is an expression which translates to “good journey.” A similar phrase we also use in English is “safe travels”. Both of these phrases can be said to someone who is about to start on their journey to wish them a safe and pleasant trip. While “bon voyage” tends to be more formal than “safe travels,” it is still a widely used and understood way to say goodbye when seeing someone off. 

E.g., “My friends came to the airport with me to wish me a bon voyage before my big trip.”

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