20 Evocative French Words
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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