Are These 10 ‘French’ Things Actually French?

French fries, French horns, French kissing. We have a lot of French things in the United States, but where do they actually come from?
Estas 10 cosas "francesas", ¿son francesas? representado con un platillo dulce con fresas

Americans really like French things. It’s pretty established. We like cooking French, dressing French  and making fun of French (that last one is probably due to jealousy).

Because of this, anything with the word “French” in it tends to be pretty popular. America has French fries, French bulldogs and French kissing. Sure, we tried to change them to “freedom fries” when France opposed the United States’ entry into the Iraq War, but history will probably take France’s side on that debate.

We at Babbel were curious about this phenomenon. Are these things actually French? What do they call them in France? Why have we never tried to call it “freedom kissing”?  We did a little digging, and we now present you with the histories of some of the most common “French” things we have.

Are These 10 French Things Actually French?

French Toast

Bread has been an important part of our diet since we first learned to make it over 5,000 years ago. And about a week after humans first made bread, they discovered that it goes stale. Various cultures have invented ways to try to make stale bread taste palatable, and cooking it in batter has been one of the more successful. The earliest recipe for something like French toast comes from a fourth- or fifth-century Roman cookbook. So, not French. The earliest evidence linking French toast to France seems to come, ironically, from England. King Henry V called the breakfast food by a French name: pain perdu, or “lost bread.” It’s possible the French brought the recipe over during the Norman Invasion of 1066, but no one is certain. The first explicit reference to “French toast” comes from The Accomplisht Cook, a book published in 1660.

Verdict: Not Very French
The French Call It: Pain perdu

A serving of French Fries

French Fries

There is an ongoing dispute between the Belgians and the French over who invented French fries. The Belgians, who already had a tendency to fry foods such as small fish, say they invented fries in the late 1600s. The French say fries didn’t exist until the late 1700s, when street vendors started selling them in Paris. Most historians agree that Belgians have the stronger claim (and the better fries). Why “French” fries, then? Francophile Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing fries to the United States. He had an enslaved African, James Hemings — the brother of Sally Hemings — learn how to cook French foods because Jefferson liked them so much. This is the most likely reason they eventually became known here as “French fried potatoes,” later shortened to French fries.

Verdict: Possibly French
The French Call It: Pommes frites

French Vanilla

Vanilla beans are harvested from various countries around the world, but none of those countries is France. The difference between French vanilla and regular vanilla is that egg yolks are used in French vanilla, which gives it that yellowish color. The classic French way to make ice cream included an egg custard base, which provides solid evidence that France is likely the first maker of this food. Like French fries, this food can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who brought the recipe with him to the United States after his ambassadorship to France.

Verdict: French
The French Call It: Vanille

French Horn

The French horn, a very round brass instrument, was invented in Germany. No one is quite sure why it’s called the French horn, and for that reason the International Horn Society has suggested just calling it a “horn,” even though that might be even more confusing. But also, it’s kind of strange there’s an International Horn Society at all.

Verdict: Not French
The French Call It: Cor

French Dressing

French dressing is vaguely based on the French vinaigrette, but it was invented in the United States during the 1950s. It may have been inspired by French cooking, or at least it was an attempt to latch on to the French food trend of the mid-20th century.

Verdict: Not French
The French Call It: Vinaigrette

A woman standing outside an outdoor stairwell with a French braid in her hair.

French Braid

In the 19th century, anything that was “French” and related to fashion was very popular. The actual history of the French braid goes back much, much further than the 19th century, having been traced 6,000 years to northern Africa. It seems to exist in almost every culture in the world. Yet, the phrase “French braid” was popularized as a “new trend” in women’s magazines during the 1800s, and the erroneous name has stuck.

Verdict: Not French
What The French Call It: Tresse Française

French Bulldog

The French bulldog, one of the most popular dog breeds in the world right now, has humble origins. One of its ancestors is the English bulldog, but no one is quite sure what other breed it was mixed with. During the 1800s, large numbers of English bulldogs were sent to France, and Frenchies eventually became their own distinct breed, possibly mixing with local ratter dogs. It’s hard to think of these often pampered pooches having been once used to hunt rats, but it wouldn’t be the first time the dogs were used for dirty work. You can trace bulldogs back to their use for farming purposes and, during a particularly cruel time, dog fighting.

Verdict: Half French
The French Call It: Bouledogue Français

French Door

French doors are doors with windows in them, and the French word for them, porte-fenêtre, literally translates to “door-window.” They date back to a war between France and Italy in the late 16th century. After the French won, they took Italian Renaissance art back to their country. With the novel architectural influences, French doors began to appear. Technically, they’re “Italian-influenced,” so you could make the case that they’re not entirely French. But they were widely used in France, and that’s good enough for us.

Verdict: French
What The French Call It: Porte-fenêtre

A Breakfast table with a French Press partway filled with coffee.

French Press

The first rudimentary version of the French press was patented in 1852, and it was indeed in France where that happened. But if someone approached you with this 19th-century object, described as  “a rod attached to a piece of tin pierced with holes and sandwiched between two layers of flannel,” you wouldn’t recognize it as a “French press.” The modern device we know as the coffee press wasn’t patented until 1929, and that was by a Milanese inventor. So while this is technically a French invention, it would be more accurate to attribute the invention to the Italians.

Verdict: Technically French
The French Call It: Cafetière à Piston

French Kissing

So long as we humans have decided it’s a good idea to mash our mouths together, we have had French kissing. There are records of it from over 3,000 years ago. The origins of the phrase “French kissing” is far more recent, going back to World War I. When American soldiers were in France, they found that French women were far more likely to use tongue than their American counterparts. It should be mentioned that Americans have a history of stereotyping French people as highly sexual, which has also led to other such phrases, like “French letter”  for condom and “French disease” for syphilis.

Verdict: A Little French
The French Call It: Rouler Une Pelle

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