20 Evocative French Words

By Mark Nichol

English has borrowed words from other languages indiscriminately, and has done so for hundreds of years. Often, this happens even when a perfectly sound native or imported synonym already exists, but sometimes the new term gains its footing because it expresses a concept better than an existing term, or conveys a connotation or nuance no other single word or phrase does.

But speakers and writers of English don’t always use the word as it is intended, leading to semantic drift. In the interests of preserving the purity of some highly evocative terms, here are twenty such words acquired from French:

1. Bête noir (literally, “black beast”): someone to whom one is averse

2. Cachet (“seal”): originally, a seal or mark of approval; now, also (and primarily) used in a figurative sense meaning “prestige” (though it has additional meanings in philately, or stamp collecting)

3. Calque (“copy”): a literal translation of a word or phrase into one language from another, as in French-to-English vers libre (“free verse”) or English-to-French seconde main (“second hand”)

4. Détente (“relaxation”): an easing of political tensions; specifically, the thawing of the Cold War during the 1970s

5. Élan (“rush, impetus”): high spirit or enthusiasm

6. Ennui (“annoyance”): annoyance or boredom

7. Fête (“feast, festival”): a celebration, or to celebrate

8. Haute couture (“high fashion”): High-quality custom tailoring, referring either to specific garments or to the industry; sometimes called simply couture

9. Lagniappe (from yapay, “to increase,” from the native South American language Quecha, by way of American Spanish and Louisiana French): a merchant’s small gift to a customer; in general usage, a modest bonus

10. Malaise (“discomfort”): a feeling of poor mental or physical health, or a sense of cultural unease

11. Métier (“work, ministry”): a type of work or other activity at which one excels

12. Panache (“small wing,” from Latin through Italian): flair or flamboyance

13. Parvenu (“new arrival”): an upwardly mobile newcomer to a socioeconomic class (synonym: “nouveau riche, or “newly rich”); the term is pejorative

14. Patois (“native or local speech”): a nonstandard dialect, especially the speech of uneducated or provincial speakers, or a jargon

15. Raconteur (“one who recounts”): a storyteller, or anyone skilled at relating anecdotes

16. Riposte (“retort”): originally the name of a fencer’s offensive response to an attack; now, also refers to the verbal equivalent, either spoken or written

17. Roué (literally, “broken on the wheel”): a hedonistic man (synonyms: libertine, rake); not to be confused with roux, a word for a flour-and-fat mixture used as a thickener

18. Sang-froid (literally, “cold blood”): self-possession under pressure

19. Savant (“one who knows,” from savoir, “to know”): a learned person, especially a specialist; also a shortening of “idiot savant,” a clinical term for a mentally disabled person with anomalous skill or ability in one area of learning, or a casual term for someone whose knowledge is almost exclusively in one subject

20. Timbre (“quality of a sound”): the particular characteristics of a musical note or other sound

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11 Responses to “20 Evocative French Words”

  • opsimath

    You have selected some nice words for us, thank you. It’s a pity you had riposte and not riposte d’escalier, which is much more amusing and something we are all prone to do at times.

    Detente is also interesting, but doesn’t a cold war’s thawing tend to suggest it is becoming a warm – or even hot one?

    Thank heavens it never became hot – apart from the proxy wars of the 50s, 60s and 70s, of course!

    Very nice – my thanks once more.

  • Claude Nougat

    As always, I enjoy your posts and learn something…even in this case, considering french is my MOTHER tongue! So by the way, please don’t write bete noir (sorry the circumflex accent doesn’t work on my travelling computer) but it’s bete noire, with an “e” at the end because the noun is feminine!
    It’s like that use of “double entendre” that Americans write down feeling they’ve mastered French, when in fact the correct expression is “double entente” (not “entendre” which is a verb; “entente” is the noun and it’s the only thing that can be doubled, or have two meanings…not a verb of course!) But I know, when words cross boundaries, they tend to shed something and that something often is a grammar rule! Wonder why everybody hates grammar!!

  • John

    Mark ~~ great post.

    One comment on the word “patois”. Having been married at one time to a French woman I came to understand the French meaning of the word and my understanding varies slightly from the emphasis you place on it.

    Patois wasn’t the language of the uneducated, it was the local language. Her parents were born in the Lorraine and spoke that local language, not a dialect of standardized French. When they didn’t want the kids to understand what they were saying this is the language they spoke to each other. This is distinct from my understanding of a dialect which would be related and therefore at least partially understandable. In this case none of the children understood a word of what they were saying.

    This was also true of my brother-in-law whose parents were from the south (Toulouse). I had this discussion with his father who demonstrated by speaking the Toulouse language in front of his son who didn’t understand a word of it. These were all highly educated people.

    I found it also interesting that as this generation died out (all those people I mentioned are now deceased) so did these languages.

    I welcome your thoughts.

    John

  • JC

    1. Bête noir (literally, “black beast”): someone to whom one is averse.

    Well yes but it is Bête noire as Bête is feminine.

    Cheers

    JC (Jean-Christophe)

    @jclanoe

  • Mark Nichol

    Opsimath:

    I referred to esprit d’le escalier in this post, but I was not familiar with the variant riposte d’escalier. Thank you for the introduction. And it hadn’t occurred to me that the common idiom about the thawing of the Cold War contradicts the literal meaning; perhaps the more quotidian but less confusing easing would be better.

  • Mark Nichol

    Claude:

    The clipping of bête noire occurred because I foolishly left Microsoft Word’s Autocorrect function on when I upgraded the program recently, and it changed noire to noir, borrowed into English to refer to film noir. Thanks for the correction.

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    I included the sense of patois as referring to a local language with the word provincial; however, that term has a negative connotation in addition to the neutral sense I intended, so it perhaps would have been better to use the word local.

    Also, as I mentioned, patois has a sense of “jargon”; one might allude to the patois of gamblers or that of computer geeks.

  • Silvia G.Martinez

    Mike you forgot to include Coup d’etat, a word that became quite familiar to all South American countries during one of the most dramatic eras of our History. Fortunately now it fell into the oblivion.

  • Vidya Sury

    This is so delightful! “Déjà vu” comes to mind, Mark. It is one of my favorites. I am happy to be introduced to new words now. Thank you!

  • Stephen Thorn

    RE: Idiot savant. Is the term still used clinically or has it been neutered to simply “savant” so as to prevent hurting anyone’s feelings?

    RE: Raconteur. I do like the sound of the word and have heard it used occasionally (even applied to me, personally) but I really didn’t know what it meant. I’d assumed, due to its similarity to the word “racket” that it meant ‘one who makes a lot of noise,’ and in a tongue-in-cheek manner perhaps that wasn’t so far from correct. Now I know the definition and I like the word even more.

  • Herto

    Very amusing article.
    Althrough french is my mother tongue, I’ve learned some idioms.
    I’ve never read or heard “Lagniappe” or “La gniappe” before. It seems to be a cajun word rather than a french one.
    “risposte d’escalier” is a very outdated expression, barely never used.

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