225 Foreign Phrases to Inspire You

By Mark Nichol

Here’s another writing challenge for you, a sequel to 150 Foreign Expressions to Inspire You. I’ve listed foreign phrases that eloquently draw, in just a few words, a portrait of a person or a situation. Some are obscure in their figurative language (esprit d’le escalier, one of my favorite expressions, refers to the chagrin you feel about coming up with a bon mot or an insult only after the opportunity to utter it has passed) and may require some research on the reader’s part, though everyone can identify with them once the meaning is clear. Others (crise de conscience) are not only universally resonant in our experience but also transparent.

Once you’ve chosen one expression, use it as a prompt for a short story. Think what you can do with a story titled “Mole ruit sua” or “Hic illae lacrimae.” (Moliere wrapped an entire play, one of the greatest ever written, around malade imaginaire.) Alternatively, this post is a rich mine for a tale featuring an insufferable boor who tosses off foreign expressions ad arbitrium to advertise his erudition. At the very least, employ these phrases to encapsulate your characters; the preceding type could be labeled folie de grandeur, or you might keep faux-naif in mind when writing another character.

1. ab incunabulis: from the cradle
2. a bon chat, bon rat: to a good cat, a good rat (retaliation in kind)
3. a bouch ouverte: with open mouth (eagerly, uncritically)
4. ab ovo usque ad mala: from egg to apples (from beginning to end)
5. a bras ouverts: with open arms
6. ab uno disce omnes: from one learn to know all
7. a coup sur: with sure stroke (surely)
8. acte gratuit: gratuitous impulsive act
9. ad arbitrium: at will (arbitrarily)
10. ad extremum: to the extreme (at last)
11. ad majorem Dei gloriam: to the greater glory of God
12. ad patres: to his fathers (deceased)
13. ad unguem: to the fingernail (exactly)
14. ad utrumque paratus: prepared for either event
15. aegri somnia: a sick man’s dreams
16. aequam servare mentem: to preserve a calm mind
17. aequo animo: with even mind (calmly)
18. aere perennius: more lasting than bronze
19. a huis clos: with closed doors
20. a l’abandon: carelessly
21. a la belle etoile: under the beautiful star (in the open air at night)
22. a la bonne heure: at a good time (all right)
23. a la page: at the page (up to the minute)
24. alter idem: another self
25. a maximis ad minima: from the greatest to the least
26. a marveille: marvelously
27. amicus humani generis: friend of the human race
28. amicus usque ad aras: a friend as far as to the alters (a friend to the last extremity)
29. ami de cour: court friend
30. armamentum ad baculum: argument of the staff (appeal to force)
31. arrectis auribus: with ears pricked up
32. a torte et a travers: wrong and crosswise (without rhyme or reason)
33. au bout de son latin: at the end of one’s Latin (at the end of one’s mental resources)
34. au fait: to the point (socially correct)
35. au grand serieux: in all serious
36. au mieux: on the best terms (on intimate terms)
37. aurea mediocritas: the golden mean
38. auspicium melioris aevi: an omen of a better age
39. ausssitot dit, aussitot fait: no sooner said than done
40. autres temps, autres moeurs: other times, other customs
41. aut vincere aut mori: either to conquer or to die
42. bellum omnium contra onnes: war of all against all
43. bien-pensant: right minded (orthodox)
44. bon gre, mal gre: whether with good grace or bad (willy-nilly)
45. bonis avibus: under good auspices
45. brutum fulmen: insensible thunderbolt (futile threat of display of force)
47. cadit quaestio: the question drops (the argument collapses)
48. capable de tout: capable of anything (unpredictable)
49. cause sine qua non: an indispensable cause or condition
50. cheval de bataille: war-horse (argument constantly relied on)
51. comedie humaine: human comedy (the whole variety of human life)
52. comedie larmoyante: tearful comedy (sentimental comedy)
53. comagnon de voyage: traveling companion
54. compte rendu: report
55. concordia discors: discordant harmony
56. confessio fidei: confession of faith
57. contemptus mundi: contempt for the world
58. coup de maitre: masterstroke
59. coup d’essai: experiment
60. coute que coute: cost what it may
61. cri de coeur: cry of the heart
62. crise de conscience: crisis of conscience
63. crise de nerfs: crisis of nerves
64. crux criticorum: crux of critics
65. cum grano salis: with a grain of salt
66. custos morum: guardian of morals (censor)
67. de bonne grice: with good grace
68. de l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace: audacity, more audacity, and ever more audacity
69. de mal en pis: from bad to worse
70. Deo favente: with God’s favor
71. de profundis: out of the depths
72. desipere in loco: to indulge in trifling at the proper time
73. Deus absconditus: hidden God (unknowable God)
74. dies faustus: lucky day
75. dies infaustus: unlucky day
76. dies irae: day of wrath
77. esprit d’le escalier: the wit of the staircase
78. faux bonhomme: false friend
79. faux-naif: affectedly simple or childlike
80. festina lente: make haste slowly
81. feux d’artifice: fireworks, or show of wit
82. folie de grandeur: delusion of greatness, megalomania
83. furor loquendi: rage for speaking
84. furor poeticus: rage for poetry
85. furor scribendi: rage for writing
86. gens du mond: fashionable people
87. guerre a outrance: war to the uttermost
88. haut gout: slight taint of decay
89. hic illae lacrimae: hence these tears
90. homme d’esprit: witty man
91. in omnia paratus: ready for all things
92. in partibus infidelium: in the land of the infidels
93. in statu quo ante bellum: just like before the war
94. januis clausis: behind closed doors
95. jeu de mots: play on words
96. ktema es ai: a possession for ever (enduring art or literature)
97. la belle dame sans merci: the beautiful lady without mercy
98. lacrimae rerum: tragedy of life
99. lapsus calami: slip of the pen
100. lapsus linguae: slip of the tongue
101. laudatory temporis acti: one who praises past times
102. lusis naturae: freak of nature
103. magni nominis umbra: the shadow of a great name
104. malade imaginaire: imaginary invalid
105. malis avibus: under evil auspices
106. mauvais quart d’heure: uncomfortable but brief experience
107. meden agen: nothing in excess
108. mens sana in corpore sano: a sound mind in a sound body
109. metteur et scene: (stage or film) director
110. meum et tuem: mine and yours
111. mirabile visu: wonderful to behold
112. mole ruit sua: it collapses from its own size
113. monumentum aere perennius: a monument more lasting than bronze
114. multum in parvo: much in little
115. mysterium tremendum: overwhelming mystery
116. ne quid nimis: not anything in excess
117. nil admirari: equanimity
118. nolens volens: willy-nilly
119. nostalgie de la boue: attraction to what is unworthy, crude, or degrading
120. novus homo: upstart
121. novus ordo seclorum: a new cycle of the ages
122. nuit blanche: sleepless night
123. obscurum per obscurius: explaining the obscure by means of the more obscure
124. onus probandi: burden of proof
125. ore rotundo: eloquently
126. otium cum dignitate: leisure with dignity
127. outre-mer: overseas
128. pallida Mors: pale Death
129. panem et circenses: bread and circuses
130. pater patriae: father of his country
131. paucis verbis: in a few words
132. pax vobiscum: peace be with you
133. peine forte et dure: strong and hard punishment
134. per angusta ad augusta: through difficulties to honors
135. peu a peu: little by little
136. peu de chose: a trifle
137. peu d’occasion: piece for a special occasion
138. piece justificative: document serving as evidence
139. piece montee: set piece (said of decorative food)
140. pleno jure: with full right
141. plus royaliste que le roi: more royalist than the king
142. pocas palabras: few words
143. point de repere: point of reference
144. police verso: with thumb turned (down)
145. pour rire: for laughing (not to be taken seriously)
146. pro aris et focis: for alters and firesides
147. pro bono publico: for the public good
148. pro hac vice: for this occasion
149. pro patria: for one’s country
150. pro rege, lege, et grege: for the king, the law, and the people
151. pro re nata: as needed
152. quantum mutates ab illo: how changed from what he once was
153. quantum sufficit: as much as suffices
154. quoad hoc: to this extent
155. quod erat demonstrandum: which was to be proved
156. quod erat faciendum: which was to be done
157. quod semper, quod ubique, quo dab omnibus: what (has been held) always, everywhere, by everybody
158. quorum pars magna fui: in which I played a great part
159. raison d’etat: reason of state
160. reculer pour mieux sauter: to draw back in order to make a better jump
161. re infecta: the beusiness being unfinished
162. religio loci: religious sanctity of a place
163. ruse de guerre: war strategem
164. rus in urbe: country in the city
165. saeva indignatio: fierce indignation
166. sal Atticum: Attic salt (wit)
167. salon des refuses: salon of the refused (exhibition of officially rejected art)
168. salto mortale: deadly jump (dangerous or crucial undertaking)
169. sancta simplicitas: holy simplicity (naivete)
170. sans doute: without doubt
171. sans gene: without embarrassment or constraint
172. sans peur et sans reproche: without fear and without reproach
173. sans souci: without worry
174. scene a faire: obligatory scene
175. secundum artem: according to the art (according to the accepted practice)
176. secundum naturam: according to nature (naturally)
177. se defendendo: in self-defense
178. semper eadem: always the same (feminine form)
179. semper fidelis: always faithful
180. semper idem: always the same (masculine form)
181. semper paratus: always prepared
182. simpliste: naive
183. splendide mendax: nobly untruthful
184. spolia opima: rich spoils (spoils of the victor)
185. status quo ante bellum: the state existing before the war
186. suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: gently in manner, strongly in deed
187. suo jure: in his own right
188. suo loco: inits proper palce
189. suo marte: by one’s own exertions
190. sur place: in place (on the spot)
191. suum cuique: to each his own
192. tant mieux: so much the better
193. tant pis: so much the worse (too bad)
194. tempus edax rerum: time, that devours all things
195. totidem verbis:: in so many words
196. totis viribus: with all one’s might
197. toto caelo: by the whole extenet of the heavens
198. toujour perdix: always partridge (too much of a good thing)
199. tour d’horizon: circuit of the horizon (general survey)
200. tous frais faits: all expenses defrayed
201. taut au contraire: quite the contrary
202. tout a vous: wholly yours (at your service)
203. tout bien ou rien: everything well (done) or nothing (attempted)
204. tout court: quite short (simply)
205. tout de meme: all the same (nevertheless)
206. tout de suite: Immediately
207. tout ensemble: all together
208. tout le monde: everybody
209. trahison de clercs: treason of the intellectuals
210. tanche de vie: slice of life
211. tristesse: melancholy
212. ultima ratio regum: the final argument of kings (war)
213. uno animo: with one mind
214. urbi et orbi: to the city and the world (to everyone)
215. utile dulci: the useful with the agreeable
216. va et vient: coming and going (traffic)
217. ventre a terre: belly to the ground (at very great speed)
218. verbatim ac litteratim: word for word, and letter for letter
219. vieux jeu: old game (old hat)
220. vin du pays: wine of the locality
221. virgo intacta: untouched virgin
222. virtute et armis: by valor of arms
223. vis medicatrix natureae: the healing power of nature
224. vita nuova: new life
225. vox et praeterea nihil: voice and nothing more

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11 Responses to “225 Foreign Phrases to Inspire You”

  • Stephen

    I think there are a couple of typos in the list. The phrase is “esprit de l’escalier” not “esprit d’le escalier”, and “ktema es ai” should be “ktema es aei”.

    In general, though, it’s a great list and thanks for sharing it.

  • Tom Jacobs

    Typos:
    3. a bouch ouverte -> à bouche ouverte
    5. a bras ouverts -> à bras ouverts
    7. a coup sur -> à coup sûr
    19. a huis clos -> à huis clos
    21. a la belle etoile -> à la belle étoile
    (I’ll stop correcting all french prepositions a into à)
    39. ausssitot dit, aussitot fait -> aussitot dit, aussitot fait
    42. bellum omnium contra onnes -> bellum omnium contra omnes
    49. cause sine qua non -> causa sine qua non
    51. comedie humaine -> comédie humaine
    52. comedie larmoyante -> comédie larmoyante
    53. comagnon de voyage-> compagnon de voyage
    58. coup de maitre -> coup de maître
    77. esprit d’le escalier -> esprit de l’escalier
    86. gens du mond -> gens du monde
    107. meden agen -> meden agan
    109. metteur et scene -> metteur en scène
    139. piece montee -> piece montée
    143. point de repere -> point de repère
    164. rus in urbe -> res in urbe
    167. salon des refuses -> salon des refusés
    171. sans gene -> sans gêne
    174. scene a faire -> scène à faire
    205. tout de meme -> tous les mêmes

    In general, you Americans are quite likely to forget that quite a number of languages in this world use the same basic set of characters, but – due to the very nature of their phonetics – need to add diacritical marks to render their sounds. There is a difference between an a and an à, between an e and an é, between an o and an ø.

    And it takes just a little time to find out how these characters can be produced, also an a US keyboard. It would respect to those languages and the people that speak them.
    Would you appreciate the name of your former president being spelled as George W. Bu$h, just because I cannot find the S on my keyboard?

  • Paul M

    I understand the point you’re making, but oh my do I ever love George W. Bu$h!

    Never mind the spelling, wait until us anglophones butcher the pronunciation.

    P.

  • Rosanne Dingli

    Look – I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time – I read your blog every day and it’s fabulous. Margaret Sutherland told me about you. She was right. This one, today, is right up my alley. Thank you for some really useful stuff. Really.

  • thebluebird11

    @Tom: I, for one, appreciate your attention to detail and tenacity in finding the typos and taking the pains to correct them with the proper diacritical markings. And please feel free to type Bu$h!! Yeehaa that’s a good one!

    @Mark: You are only evil for not telling us how to pronounce all these fabulous phrases! 🙂 Thanks for the list!

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen and Tom:

    Thanks for the corrections. I typed the entries from print sources rather than copying and pasting them, and despite my efforts, I allowed some errors to slip through.

    However, Tom, this American did not forget anything. He merely simplified the task of preparing this post for online publication by omitting diacritical marks, which must be separately entered with HTML coding.

    I realize that this omission, common in online content, compromises the integrity of the language. In my print writing and editing, I honor the conventions. But site visitors can easily verify the strictly correct treatment by a print or online search, and search engines will assist with typographical errors.

    Thanks again for your collaborative assistance.

  • Peter

    (esprit d’le escalier, one of my favorite expressions, refers to the chagrin you feel about coming up with a bon mot or an insult only after the opportunity to utter it has passed)

    FWIW, it’s esprit d’escalier (or de l’escalier), not d’le, and it refers to the act of coming up with the comeback too late, not what you feel.

  • Peter

    #164 was correct before the above “correction” 🙂

    Errors I noticed:
    30. armamentum ad baculum => argumentum
    101. laudatory temporis acti => laudator
    110. meum et tuem => tuum
    157. quod semper, quod ubique, quo dab omnibus => quod ab omnibus
    223. vis medicatrix natureae => naturae

  • annick

    Corrections:
    à bon chat, bon rat// à bouche ouverte// à bras ouverts// à coup sûr// à l’abandon// à la belle étoile// à huis clos// à la page : in fashion// à merveille : perfectly, wonderfully// au grand sérieux : in all seriousness// aussitôt dit, aussitôt fait// bon gré, al gré// coûte que coûte// crise de nerfs : nervous breakdown// de bonne grâce : graciously// esprit de l’escalier// faux-naïf : someone faking innocence// malade imaginaire : hypochondriac// metteur en scène/ peu à peu// peu d’occasion : few opportunities//pièce justificative// pièce montée : wedding cake//point de repère//raison d’état//sans gène : about someone who has no social grace//sans peur et sans reproche : without fear or shame// scène à faire : obligatory scene. Faire une scène : to make a scene// Tous frais payès : all expenses paid// Tout à vous/ tout de même// tranche de vie/ ventre à terre

  • Andrea Georgi

    L’esprit de l’escalier refers to that “Darn it!” feeling you get when you think of the witty comeback you should have made as you trudge up the stairs on the way back from your big night out…

  • Caylith Creator

    I would make this persnickety little correction: In #28 you translate “aras” as “alters.” The Latin word “ara” (as in the constellation) means “altar.”

    I learned the “stairway” expression years ago from a French speaker who told me that it means “the thought on the stairway going down,” i.e., the words you should have said that you think of after you leave.

    Nifty list! I will download it and save it as a handy reference.

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