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31 English Words That Are Actually French And The Stories Behind Them

It's estimated that 30% of English words come from French, but you probably wouldn't recognize most of them. Here are our favorite English words with surprising French origins.

English is a mongrel language — the product of numerous cultures clashing on the British Isles since time immemorial. One of the biggest of these influencers came from France in 1066 AD in the form of the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror’s military victories paved the way for a French-speaking aristocracy in England (and French remained the official language for the next 400 years). A second wave of French influence came with the Protestant Huguenots in the 16th and 17th centuries as they fled religious persecution back home, and the third wave arrived in the 18th century during the French Revolution. Many aristocrats managed to keep their wigged heads on their wealthy bodies by putting the English Channel between themselves and their would-be revolutionary executioners.

Most English native speakers recognize French words in their own language when they see them, but few know their true original meanings — especially when many of these words have taken on anglicized spellings.

For instance: did you know that etiquette originated in the French Court of Louis XIV at Versailles? A number of étiquettes (little cards) were used by courtiers to remember all the little nit-picky rules they needed to abide by while at court. The word’s meaning gradually morphed into "how to conduct oneself properly in polite society."

And did you know that sabotage originated from the French word sabot, which is a kind of wooden clog worn by French and Breton peasants? As industrialization swept Europe, disgruntled peasants soon discovered that a sabot, when thrown into machinery, was very effective at bringing much-maligned factories to a halt.

Going to the dentist? Why not simply say “toother" and be done with it? Because that’s what it means: “tooth" in French is dent, and the dentist is a “toother," a professional who takes care of your pearly whites.

You love saving coupons for a discount? The word literally means “piece cut off," since couper is “to cut" in French.

You’re hooked on crochet? Of course you are — it means “little hook" in French. You could crochet a rectangle (“straight angle") depicting a scene from a renaissance (“rebirth"), painting while you wait for your soufflé (“blown") to get properly light and fluffy.

Brimming with ideas for crochet patterns? Create a dossier (a bundle of papers with a label on the back, from the French dos, which means “back") to organize all those creative ideas. And take a break — your guests are arriving, and it would be a faux-pas (“false step") to not have the table set. Prepare the hors d’oeuvre (literally “outside the work," i.e., meal) and fully embrace your role (from rôle, the “roll" of paper containing an actor’s part) as a gracious host for this rendezvous (literally “present yourselves").

The guests arrive and Jonathan has brought his ouija board. While everyone nibbles and drinks, he clears a small table in the corner, and everyone gathers for a séance (“session/sitting") to attempt to contact the dead. An angry spirit replies and suddenly a vase explodes! The debris (from the obsolete débriser, “to break down") is scattered all over the floor. And the souflé also exploded! It’s a mess, so everyone decides to go to a restaurant (literally “restorer" or "to restore with food"). Contacting the dead can be risky — it’s like playing roulette (“little wheel"; from rouler, “to roll").

There is a queue (“tail") to get into the restaurant, but an ambulance (“walking hospital") arrives and the crowd parts. According to the maître d (short for maître d’hôtel, "master of hotel," the front-of-house restaurant manager) there was a fight inside, and the debacle (literally “unleash/unbar") has closed the restaurant. Everyone decided to go home, but Jonathan suggested a detour (“change of direction") to a food truck serving delicious falafels.

It seems Jonathan ruined and saved the night! But who can be mad at him? He knows how to amuse (“entertain") and maneuver (manœuvrer, literally “to operate with the hand") himself out of difficulties with such… what’s the word? Ah, yes — panache! It literally means “feather" or “plume" worn on a hat or a helmet. This usage originated with King Henry IV of France (1553 – 1610). A courageous military leader with a love for the finer things, he wore a white plume on his helmet and was famed for his war cry: "Follow my white plume!" ("Ralliez-vous à mon panache blanc !").

So don’t be shy when using French words in English. They add elan (from élancer, "to dart") to your speech and make you stand out from the crowd. Don’t camouflage yourself (from camouflet, "a whiff of smoke in the face"). Be chic (a French word of obscure origin, but that might originate from the German Schick, which means “skill," though that’s another article altogether)!

A few more examples:

  • avant-garde: literally “front guard"
  • envoy: from the french “envoyer," which means “to send." That gives new meaning to envelope as well, doesn’t it?
  • parachute: from French para ("protection against") + chute ("fall")
  • pioneer: a military term denoting a member of the infantry from the French pionnier ("foot soldier") who was always at the front

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