15 French words used by English speakers

While Anglicisms are overrepresented around the world, the French language has also found its way into the dictionaries of neighboring countries.

Since the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French has greatly influenced the syntax, grammar, spelling, vocabulary and even the pronunciation of some English words. As a matter of fact, according to linguist Henriette Walter, more than two-thirds of English vocabulary takes its roots from French.

At Gymglish, we love languages and the stories they tell about our cultures. Here are 15 French words and expressions used by English speakers.

1) Déjà-vu

Picture that peculiar and inexplicable instance or illusion of having already lived an experience in the present moment. The French have a unique term for it: déjà-vu (from déjà “already” and vu “seen”). In English, the meaning is roughly the same, and it is a popular and well-used expression among English speakers. It is pronounced déija vou, according to the Oxford Dictionary. No time like the present, right?

Example: “It’s like déjà vu all over again” – Quote attributed to Yogi Berra

2) C’est la vie

This expression emphasizes those situations in life that just happen but you can’t really do much about. In English, “c’est la vie” could be translated as “That’s just the way life goes” or its shorter form “That’s life”. The phrase is used quite casually and can be thrown into just about any conversation.

Example: Well, I guess I can’t afford to go to the hospital in my own country but, that’s life.

3) Douche

You might be slightly puzzled as to why the French word for “shower” has taken on a whole new meaning in English, and you’re certainly not alone in this.

In modern-day English, the term “douche” (the shortened form of the English insult “douchebag”) helps refer to somebody (usually male) with a range of negative personality traits: rude, obnoxious, arrogant, annoying, creepy, heavy-handed, and sexist, to name but a few.

Example: David is such a douche, he didn’t even clean the dishes before he left for his appointment.

4) Resume

When applying for almost any job in an English-speaking country, a recruiter is likely to ask for your resume. This term refers to a Curriculum Vitae (CV), not a summary of a book or series! This word is the most commonly used on this list, as in the States, for instance, students and young professionals start working on their resumes in High School.

Note: the word CV is used more in British English, but less in American English.

Example: I handed in my resume today, I certainly think the world needs more Uber drivers.

5) Cul-de-sac

Pronounced [kuhl-duh-sak] in English, this word is often used to refer to a dead-end road. Mainly used to describe this type of location in a neighborhood. Cul de sac can also be translated as “dead end” in English. 

Example: I told you we shouldn’t have followed the GPS, we’ve ended up in a cul-de-sac!

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6) Fiance

First used in the 19th century in English, the term “fiance” comes from the past participle form of the French verb se fiancer which means “to betroth”. It takes its roots from Latin verb fidare which means “to trust”.

Today, the term is widely used across English-speaking countries and refers to a man or woman engaged to be married.

Example: I told my fiance not to worry about the wedding: heavy metal all the way, right?

7) Faux pas

The term “faux pas” (literally “false step”) is used to refer to a social blunder or mistake, particularly one that is considered impolite or inappropriate. While a “faux pas” may cause embarrassment or discomfort for the person who makes it, it is generally not considered a serious offense and can often be overlooked or forgiven.

Example: George made a fashion faux-pas yesterday by wearing fur at Lisa’s Vegan birthday party.

8) Hors d’oeuvres

This next term definitely screams lavish cocktail party. “Hors d’oeuvres” refers to small dishes that are usually served before a starter or a main to stimulate one’s appetite. “Hors d’oeuvres” are usually served as finger foods or small bites that can be eaten with the hands, and are accompanied by drinks. In English, the term “appetizers” is also frequently used.

Example: Janet is inviting us to her place to eat some hors-d’oeuvres. Do you think we should bring some champagne or some pretzels?

9) Souvenir

For English speakers, a “souvenir” is a tangible, physical object that you get to bring back to your loved ones when traveling to a foreign place and that should induce recollection. For French speakers, it is both a noun and a verb (se souvenir).

Example: We’ve brought back about 20 souvenirs from Crete. I sure hope border control will let us through, or else we’re doomed.

10) Voilà

More elegant than the famous interjection “ta-dah”, this word is used to punctuate a conversation or to show others something they have done and are proud of. In an everyday act, one would typically use this in a funny sense; you can also hear it in settings such as a show or performance.

Example: A sprinkle of salt and pepper and voilà! My signature beef stew is ready.

11) Avant-garde

This term, also used by German and Spanish speakers, refers to something that is innovative, modern or new. In English, this term refers to “Artists, writers, musicians, etc., whose techniques and ideas are markedly experimental or in advance of those generally accepted” (according to the Oxford Dictionary). This term has shown a spotlight on variants such as “avant-gardism” or “avant-gardist”.

Example: It’s safe to say that Andy Warhol was an avant-garde artist, but I don’t approve of his blatant copyright infringement of soup cans.

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12) Ménage à trois 

The term “ménage à trois” can have multiple meanings: it is used either to refer to an arrangement by which a couple and one of their lovers live together, or to describe an ongoing sexual relationship between three people from the same household (much like the English “threesome”).

In French, the term literally means “household of three”.

Example: What I wouldn’t give for a ménage à trois…

13) Rendezvous

On your next trip to an English-speaking country, you’re likely to hear this term in both formal and casual conversation. “Rendezvous” has the same meaning as in French, but the [ez] is pronounced [ay] instead of [é]. In English, it is mostly used in the context of a romantic encounter.

Example: I have a rendezvous with Mike tonight, and I’m a bit nervous. I don’t think he’s ever performed brain surgery before.

Useful tip: In addition to its use as a noun, the term “rendezvous” can also be used as a verb, as in “to rendezvous” or “to meet at a rendezvous and often in its imperative form (“let’s rendezvous at the restaurant at 7 PM”.).

14) Potpourri

Literally “rotten pot” (charming), we also owe the 17th century-term “potpourri” to the French. It refers to a pleasant medley of dried flowers, herbs, and spices fated to coexist in a decorative bowl or jar to add a fragrant scent to a room or place.

Did you know? Originally, the French term pot pourri described a slow-cooked stew of mixed meats and vegetables – a far cry from its contemporary sweet meaning.

Example: My mother has had her living-room potpourri for decades, when should we tell her they don’t sell them anymore?

15) Touché

Popularized by fencing, this word is used as an acknowledgment during a discussion of a good or clever point made. It could be translated as “you got me!” or “very fair!”.

Example: “-I’m madly in love with you” 

“-I just delivered your pizza, dude.”


Bonus: Crème de la crème

This expression takes its roots in old England where cream was usually a food that only the rich would be able to afford and the people who would have cream-based desserts in the house would be considered rich. Fast forward to today, this expression is used to describe the elite or the highest level of quality or excellence within a particular field – the best of the best for the average person.

Example: This blog is truly la crème de la crème of Dawson’s Creek fan fiction.

From fashion to gastronomy to seduction, the French language still finds its place in the English language. If you want to improve your French, choose Frantastique: fun, concise and personalized online French lessons in just 10 minutes a day.

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