15 Foreign Words and Phrases People Spell Incorrectly

By Mark Nichol

Here are some problematic frequently misspelled words and phrases of foreign extraction:

1. A capella: The Italian phrase, literally “in chapel style” but meaning “without instrumental accompaniment,” is two words.

2. Apropos: The French phrase for “to the purpose,” and meaning “with regard to” or “opportune” or timely,” is treated as two words in the original language but as one in English. It’s sometimes erroneously split into two in English, which is not appropriate.

3. Capisce: This formal Italian term meaning “understand” is employed in English as a slang interrogative equivalent to “You know what I mean?” (Notice that capisci is also correct, as it’s the equivalent of capisce in the second person).

4. Chaise longue: This phrase, literally “long chair” in French, is often mispronounced “chase lounge” (the correct French pronunciation is “shez long,” though the vowel sound in the first word is in English closer to “shayz”) and, by association, the second word is sometimes misspelled like “lounge.”

5. Coffee klatch: This half-translation of the German word Kaffeeklatsch (“coffee gossip”) is an open compound (or, in a variant, more faithful spelling, a hyphenated compound: coffee-klatsch).

6. De rigueur: This French word for “proper,” adopted into English, is (like liqueur) properly spelled with two us.

7. En masse: This French phrase for “as one” is one of several adopted into English as is.

8. Flak: This German acronym — derived from Fliegerabwehrkanonen, or antiaircraft guns, and, by extension, the shells fired from them, and used in English to refer to criticism or opposition — has so often been misspelled flack that this second spelling is now an accepted variant, though the direct borrowing is preferred.

9. Hors d’oeuvres: The jumble of vowels following the article d’ in this direct borrowing from the French phrase meaning “apart from the main work” stymies many writers.

10. Laissez-faire: This direct translation of the French phrase translated roughly as “let do” and referring to minimal government interference in economic or other affairs is always hyphenated, even when used as a noun.

11. Mano a mano: This Spanish phrase for “hand to hand” refers, in English as well, to two people going up against each other in competition or conflict.

12. Oeuvre: The French term for “work,” most often used in the sense of the sum total of an artist’s output, consists of a bewildering sequence of letters.

13. Per se: People unfamiliar with the origin of this phrase (it’s borrowed directly from the Latin phrase meaning “in itself”) sometimes misspell it “per say” (perhaps as if to write “as said”).

14. Segue: Confusion with the name of the vehicle called the Segway may be responsible for the occasional misspelling of this word to resemble the brand name, though that error may just be the result of a phonetic attempt to produce the borrowed French term meaning “to make a close or smooth transition.”

15. Tchotchke: This improbably spelled alteration of a Yiddish word meaning “trinket” is a spelling bee competitor’s nightmare.

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19 Responses to “15 Foreign Words and Phrases People Spell Incorrectly”

  • Marie-L. Flacke

    Regarding the origin of the word “segue”: nothing French there. It’s an Italian word.

    See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/segue

    Origin of SEGUE
    Italian, there follows, from seguire to follow, from Latin sequi — more at sue
    First Known Use: circa 1740

  • dVyper

    How come it’s ‘appropriate’ to keep two words for ‘a capella’ but not for ‘a propos’?!?

  • Rowbear

    on today’s topic. foreign phrases.

    I’ve seen “coup de grace” (final blow) as “coup de grasse” (grasse of course meaning “fat”)…. which is actually quite funny…

  • Deborah H

    But … but … how is Fliegerabwehrkanonen pronounced? I’d love to use it in a sentence!

  • Stephen Thorn

    @Deborah H: I think you’ll find it is “flee-ger-ahb-verk-ahn-oh-nen” with the emphasis on the “ahb” sound with a lesser emphasis on the “oh”.

  • A.M. Hudson

    Okay, the freakiness has gone too far! I receive these tips through my email, but it just seems that whenever I’m wondering about a certain grammar topic, I log into my email and there’s the answer…just waiting for me…from this site. It’s getting weird, but a good kind of weird.
    These are great tips, and always helpful…especially to me, but I think whoever is sending out those emails might have some freaky mind-reading talent or something. Keep it up.

  • Paul M

    It made me laugh to remember writing a post late one night, back in the days when I thought it was okay to press the publish button at 2am. My wife was reading it the next day and stopped, “what the heck is that?”

    I had ended a sentence with ‘wah lah!’

    She rolled her eyes and corrected it with ‘voilà’.

  • Larry Ball

    I appreciate you website:

    a cappella NOT a capella is the correct spelling.

    Larry Ball

  • Mark MacKay

    I’d argue that using the correct pronunciation of chaise longue will make one sound like a twit. It’s no longer French – it’s American English.

  • Deborah H

    Thank you, Stephen.

    Agreed, Mark, that using the correct French pronunciation can occasionally be the wrong thing to say. I have a hang-up with the word armoire, which I think should be pronounced “armor ray”(softly on the “ray”) not arm WAH. Too many Americans think every “oi” in French has an “ah” sound. I try to explain that an armoire (armor ray) was chest where a knight kept his armor, but it rarely works 🙂

  • Melvin S. (“Mel”) Merzon

    “tchotchke” The Yiddish word is properly pronounced “tsatskeh.” The “ts” represents the sound of the Hebrew letter “tsadik.” (The Hebrew alphabet is also the Yiddish alphabet.) The “a” is a short a, as in “ah.” The “eh” is pronounced like the letter “e” in the word “deck.” The word is also used to refer to a small toy. Doting parents sometimes refer to her their baby as “our little tsatskeh.” (In Yiddish, “our kleineh tsatskeh.”)

  • shirley in berkeley

    Pronunciations that get on my nerves? Salade nicoise, with “niece wah” tripped off the tongue by waiters and patrons alike, instead of the proper “niece wahz.” The e on the end is the feminine form and the s is pronounced (like a z). This holds true for the feminine of Francois, which is Francoise.

    “Croysont” is like fingernails on a blackboard, but on this side of the Atlantic, it seems no one can say crwah-sohn, which still isn’t quite right, but a lot closer.

    I have no problem with “arm war” for armoire.

    And Paul, the v in voila is pronounced — it’s “vwa la.” Don’t listen to the dorky news people; they don’t know what they’re saying.

  • Eva Marie Everson

    No one mentioned “ciao”?

  • Carl G. Oehling

    I question if the correct pronunciation is divided as ‘verk- ahn’, but rather ‘ver-kahn which would make the last word sound more like cannon, An anti-aircraft gun would indeed be quite a cannon.

  • Mark Nichol

    Eva:

    You did. Thanks — and chow!

  • shirley in berkeley

    Chow, ciao? Eat and run?

  • Jim

    One of my favorite idiocisms was an article in which the author characterized interactions between competitive co-workers of opposite sexes as “mano a womano.”

  • Peter

    how is Fliegerabwehrkanonen pronounced?

    Like flieger+abwehr+kanonen 🙂

    http://www.forvo.com/word/fliegerabwehrkanonen/

  • Rob

    Armoire is pronounced Arm – whah – R

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