French Language Blog

French Expressions Used in English Posted by on Sep 11, 2012 in Culture, Grammar, Vocabulary

It’s a fact, English words and expressions are increasingly present in other languages.

In France, people often say “weekend”, instead of “fin de semaine“, “mail” instead of “courriel“, etc.

But the other way is also true: A lot of French words, idioms, and expressions have since a long time found their way into the language of Shakespeare.

Today, we’ll go over some of such expressions, often identified in English as “allusions.”


  • Amour-propre:
In an article of “The New York Times” (January 4th, 2010), Clyde Haberman writes:
“This wasn’t a case of amour-propre on the mayor’s part. Well, not just a case of amour-propre. It was a recognition that, love them or not, the wealthiest bear much of the freight for services that help those with the least.”

→ Not necessarily as negative as the word orgueil (pride), the French term amour-propre designates self-esteem, and literally means “self-love.”

  • Au courant:
In the “Philadelphia Enquirer” (October 27th, 2011), A.D. Amorosi writes: “Hipness is sought-after and high-value these days in the music world, so it’s fascinating to watch au courant acts trading on the market, fascinating to track their score daily on the hipness index.”
 “Au courant” translates literally as “in the current“, and simply means “aware“, “to be ‘in’“, or “in the loop.
  • Beau Geste:
In his prequel to “The Art of Seduction”, best-selling author Robert Green writes in “The 48 Laws of Power”: “Caesar’s dramatic crossing of the Rubicon was a beau geste — a move that dazzled the soldiers and gave him heroic proportions.”
What is a beau geste?

→ It can translate in English as a “beautiful, magnanimous gesture”, displaying the self-sacrifice of the person who makes it.

  • Bête Noire:
Two days ago, on the BBC website, North America Editor Mark Mardell wrote: “I get the impression that Mr Norquist, with his deadpan delivery and an impish sense of humour, delights in being the bete noire of the liberal establishment.”
And as far as we are concerned, one gets the impression that even intelligentsia writers, such as M. Mardell, often seem “to delight” in omitting the use of accents when resorting to French expressions, either out of sheer négligence (the “mot juste” in this case would then be “negligentsia” writers), or simply because they do not have such accents at their disposal.

→ At any rate, “bête noire” translates as “black beast“, and stands for “archenemy“, “archnemesis“, “archfoe“, etc.

  • Cordon sanitaire:
In “The Independent” of last Friday (November 18th, 2011), Robert Fisk analyzes the currently tense situation between Turkey and Syria by saying: “A Turkish military cordon sanitaire inside the border with Syria seems to be the favourite.”
→ The term “cordon sanitaire” stands for an area that acts as a protective barrier against a potential danger, either military (as alluded to in Fisk’s article), or a medical one, for example.
  • Enfant terrible:
Not long ago, in the Washington Examiner (November 10th, 2011), Kelly Jane Torrance titled her article “Film’s enfant terrible makes surprisingly tame disaster”, referring to Danish director Lars von Trier.
→ In plain words, enfant terrible, or “terrible child”, refers to someone who is characterized as a combination of famous and outrageous, and often famous *because* outrageous.
You can read more on this Danish director (of “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” fame) and other enfants encore plus terribles in The French Blog’s “And the “Grands gagnants” (“Big Winners”) of the 2011 Cannes Festival Are…“)
  • Idée fixe:
Four days ago, discussing Germany’s pivotal role in the salvation of the Euro, Guido Westerwelle wrote in the Financial Times: “Sound budgeting is not a German idée fixe based on our historical experience of hyperinflation. It is in the interest of Europe as a whole.
→ An idée fixe is literally a “fixed idea“, and refers to an “obsessive preoccupation.”
You may remember that the term “idée fixe” serves as a pun for Astérix and Obélix‘s tiny sidekick, the little dog “Idéfix” (known as “Dogmatix” in English.)

Similarly, you can also look up the meanings of other French allusions, such as “arriviste“, or its equivalents “parvenu” and “nouveau riche“; “les belles-lettres“; “une cause célèbre“; “un cri de cœur“; “un déjà vu“; “une danse macabre“; “dernier cri“; “une éminence grise“; “un faux pas“; “fin de siècle“; “une force majeure“; “un je ne sais quoi“; “un lèse-majesté“; “une messe noire“; “noblesse oblige“; “un nom de guerre” and “un nom de plume“; “une raison d’être“; “un roman à clef“; “une volte-face“; and, of course, “zut alors!

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