15 French Words and Phrases That Don’t Mean That in French

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This post lists a number of words and phrases used in English that are derived from French but are no longer employed with the same idiomatic sense in French (if they ever were). Each term is followed by the literal French translation, a brief definition, and a comment about its status in French and how the French language conveys the idiom.

1. au jus (“with juice”): a brothlike meat sauce (the phrase is often incorrectly treated on menus as “with au jus”)—obsolete in French except for the slang phrase être au jus (roughly, “be with juice”)

2. cause célèbre (“celebrated cause”): controversial or emotionally weighted issue—obsolete in French, but originally referred to a sensational or unusual legal decision or trial

3. demimonde (“half world”): fringe group or subculture, or prostitutes as a class—obsolete in French, though une demi-mondaine refers to a prostitute (in English, demimondaine is synonymous with “kept woman”)

4. double entendre (“double to hear”): a comment that can have a second, often provocative, connotation—faulty grammar in French, which uses à double sens (“double sense”)

5. en masse (“in a masse”): all together—in French, refers to a physical grouping, so when using that language, one would not refer to a chorus of voices as being en masse

6. encore (“again”): additional songs played after the scheduled end of a concert, or a call for such an extended performance—in French, “Une autre! (“Another!”)

7. en suite (“as a set”): usually refers to a bedroom and bathroom connected to each other—not used as such in French

8. esprit de l’escalier (“wit of the stairs”): a witty comment one thinks of only after the opportunity to share it has passed (when one is departing a social occasion)—nearly obsolete in French

9. in lieu (“in place of”): instead of—a partial translation; in French, au lieu

10. legerdemain (“light of hand”): deception in stage magic—not used in French

11. marquee (“awning”): sign above a venue announcing the featured entertainment—not used in French

12. passé (“past,” “passed,” or “faded”): unfashionable—in French, passé de mode (“way of the past”)

13. piéce de resistance (“a piece that resists”): the best, or the main dish or main item—in French, plat de résistance (“dish that resists”)

14. rouge (“red”): blusher, or red makeup—in French, fard à joues (though lipstick of any color is rouge à lèvres)

15. venue (“arrival”)—location—not used as such in French

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2 thoughts on “15 French Words and Phrases That Don’t Mean That in French”

  1. What about entrée? That one seems to ignite a lot of foodies. The argument asserted is that it means beginning, opening, first thing, etc., which it may well mean in French (je ne know if that’s true pas). In English, however, I think it has clearly come to mean the “main course”, and despite suspicious claims to the contrary, I have never seen it used in the US to mean anything else. Maybe I just go to places that are too outré. Or is that passé, aussi?

    Also, résumé. Does that back-translate to French?

  2. venqax:
    I inadvertently neglected entrée, which in English has come, as you mention, to refer to the main course—presumably because multiple-course meals no longer prevail in most English-speaking countries, although they are common in restaurants and at dinner parties. The French still employ entrée to denote what American English calls an appetizer and British English refers to as a starter. As for résumé, which in French means “summary,” the French use the word only in that sense. The term for a work-experience outline in France is CV, an abbreviation of “curriculum vitae” (literally, “course of life”). It’s also common in academia and medicine in the United States. However, a CV tends to be more extensive than a résumé and details achievements and academic background, not just work experience. (CV and résumé are both common in Canada.)

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