20 French phrases used in English

Posted by Josh on 19th Jun 2023 in the blog in the category

The English language is heavily intertwined with French, a subject we've written about before. If you speak English, you probably already know a bit of French, since we use so many French phrases in our vocabulary. Often they can be used to express sentiments that don’t exist in English, or to lend a certain je ne sais quoi to an otherwise bland pronouncement, given the romantic overtones of the French language.

Read on to discover 20 of the commonest French phrases used in English.

Au contraire

This is exactly the same as the English expression 'on the contrary', but both phrases are used in English. Who knows why we sometimes use the French version? Maybe because it’s quicker to say? Or, au contraire, perhaps because it sounds oh-so-sophisticated?

Dreamstime m 199821737

Bric-à-brac

You might not be aware that this phrase derives from the French, which itself has conflicting etymologies (either from à bricq et à bracq or de bric et de broc). Regardless, the original meaning of the French is 'a random collection', which remains the meaning of the phrase when used in English today. It's often used to refer to miscellaneous items of the sort you might find in an antique shop.

C'est la vie

‘That’s life!’ While it’s the subject of a Frank Sinatra song in English, the French version is also the title of a number of songs that are also sung in English. Why? Something about C'est la vie sounds more wistful, which helps to hammer home the point: sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s okay.

Coup d'état

The word ‘coup’, meaning a decisive strike, comes directly from the French, but it’s also used in certain French expressions that the English language has borrowed over the centuries. Translating literally as ‘coup of state’, coup d'état refers to an overthrow of the government.

Coup de grâce

Translating literally as ‘coup of mercy’, coup de grâce refers to a killing blow - whether literally, as in the context of ending the life of someone badly wounded, or figuratively - and thankfully more commonly these days - in the context of something being ended decisively, such as a business, movement or perhaps the finishing move of a game of chess.

Crème de la crème

The closest English translation of crème de la crème would be the ‘best of the best’, or perhaps the ‘cream of the crop’. The crème translates as ‘cream’, and the culinary phrase originally referred to the best, richest, and most expensive part of the milk, but has found application over the years in any context where you may want to refer to something that is, well, the very best.

Déjà vu

This phrase literally means ‘already seen’, but in English we use it to refer to the uncanny sensation of feeling like you’ve seen something or been through a particular experience before. We don’t really know why it happens, although scientists have their theories. Stranger still than the phenomenon of déjà vu is that, before the late 19th century, we didn’t have a word to describe it. (The word ‘promnesia’, the scientific term for déjà vu, only entered the dictionary in 1895.)

Double entendre

A double entendre is a word or phrase which has two different meanings (one often being more risqué than the other). The funny thing about this expression is that, while it is French, it isn’t used in French, and doesn’t really make sense, given that entendre is an infinitive verb rather than a noun. In French you would instead more likely say à double sens.

En route

This common expression means ‘on the way’. It’s pronounced like ‘on route’, but remember this is a French, not English, expression, so make sure to spell it right!

Dreamstime m 134663360

Enfant terrible

While you can always describe an ill-behaving child as a ‘terrible infant’, the French equivalent generally refers to a person who is disruptive, perhaps controversial, in their particular field. It’s an appellation often applied to subversive celebrities, like the writer Michel Houellebecq, or the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

Excusez-moi

This one probably needs no explanation. While we have the phrase ‘excuse me’ in English, people will often opt for the French excusez-moi for comic effect, or to appear sophisticated while pushing past you on the train.

Fait accompli

Similar to the English phrase ‘done deal’, a fait accompli refers to something that is established and irreversible.

Fin de siècle

While this literally just means ‘end of the century’, the century this expression refers to specifically is the 19th. So events that happened between 1880-1920 generally fall under this umbrella. This was a period of perceived social malaise and extremist political ideologies across France and Europe more generally, so fin de siècle has additional connotations of decadence and cynicism, but also evokes a nostalgic note of romanticism.

Je ne sais quoi

Je ne sais quoi translates as 'I don't know what'. This statement is used as a noun to describe, well, something that can’t quite be described. If something has a certain je ne sais quoi about it, it means it has a particular quality which, although indescribable, is special and makes it stand out.

Nom de plume

This one has a slightly convoluted history. The origin of this phrase isn’t French at all, and actually comes from the English term ‘pen name’, meaning an alias adopted by a writer. It was back-translated into French along the lines of nom de guerre, not by the French themselves but by the English, who presumably wanted to confer a sense of elegance to the expression. And now the phrase nom de plume is used in French, as the French have in turn borrowed it from the English!

Dreamstime m 47733130

Objet d’art

An objet d’art is, quite literally, an object of art. Although it sounds a little strange in its English variation, in its French form it bequeaths a certain sense of sophistication to a sculpture, miniature or other work that might be considered beautiful or in some other way artistic.

Raison d'être

‘Reason for being’, meaning the reason why something exists, just doesn’t sound right in English, so we generally rely on the French raison d'être to do the job.

Répondez s'il-vous-plaît

You’re far more likely to encounter this expression in its abbreviated form, RSVP - but you probably didn’t know it stood for an expression in French. That expression is, of course, répondez s'il-vous-plaît, meaning ‘please reply’.

Tour de force

You’ll sometimes see this expression hyphenated as tour-de-force. It’s another way of describing something as a creative masterpiece, and can be found in the review sections of best-selling books.

Vis-à-vis

This phrase literally means ‘face to face’, although vis is no longer used in French (instead say visage). Its meaning is similar to ‘in regards to’, for instance, ‘I am not hopeful vis-a-vis the football game tomorrow.’

Check out some of our other blog posts!

Repainting the Eiffel Tower

Posted on by Josh in the french culture category

The Eiffel Tower is due to be repainted this year. But it isn't the first time this world-famous landmark has had a makeover.

Read more

Best winter vacation spots in France

Posted on by Josh in the category

Where are the best places to visit in France over the winter months?

Read more

Have fun learning French Today

People from all over the world enjoy learning French with Alexa Polidoro’s popular French audio and video lessons.