6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know

By Daniel Scocco

Whether you like it or not, foreign expressions represent an integral part of the English language (and of many other languages, too). Knowing the meaning and usage of the most used ones is very important. First of all because it will enable you to understand pieces of text that include them. Secondly, because you might also need to use those expressions on particular situations (avoid using them just to sound smart though). Below you will find 6 foreign expressions commonly used in English, enjoy!

1. De Facto

De facto is a Latin expression that means “actual” (if used as an adjective) or “in practice” (if used as an adverb). In legal terms, de facto is commonly used in contrast to de jure, which means “by law.” Something, therefore, can emerge either de facto (by practice) or de jure (by law).

And what of the plastic red bench, which has served as his de facto home for the last 15 years and must by now be a collector’s item? (NY Times)

2. Vis-à-Vis

The literal meaning of this French expression is “face to face” (used as an adverb). It is used more widely as a preposition though, meaning “compared with” or “in relation to.”

It’s going to be a huge catalyst in moving the whole process forward and it really strengthens the U.S. position vis-a-vis our trading partners (Yahoo! News)

3. Status quo

This famous Latin expression means “the current or existing state of affairs.” If something changes the status quo, it is changing the way things presently are.

Bush believes that the status quo — the presence in a sovereign country of a militant group with missiles capable of hitting a U.S. ally — is unacceptable. (Washington Post)

4. Cul-de-sac

This expression was originated in England by French-speaking aristocrats. Literally it means “bottom of a sack,” but generally it refers to a dead-end street. Cul-de-sac can also be used metaphorically to express an action that leads to nowhere or an impasse.

But the code of omerta was in effect for two carloads of fans circling the cul-de-sac to have a look at the house. (Reuters.com)

A cul-de-sac of poverty (The Economist)

5. Per se

Per se is a Latin expression that means “by itself” or “intrinsically.”

The mistake it made with the Xbox is that there is no game console market per se; there are PlayStation, GameCube, and Xbox markets. (PCMag.com)

6. Ad hoc

Ad hoc, borrowed from the Latin, can be used both as an adjective, where it means “formed or created with a specific purpose,” and as an adverb, where it means “for the specific purpose or situation.”

The World Bank’s board on Friday ordered an ad hoc group to discuss the fate of President Paul Wolfowitz (CNN)

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129 Responses to “6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know”

  • Dorie

    To David Warley, who wrote (“on August 13, 2014 12:34 pm”),
    “I do find American English usage to be sometimes very foreign. When at a meeting I may ask to table something that I want to talk about. Ie put it on the table so we can talk about it. I was surprised to find that my US colleagues thought I meant put it under the table where we can all ignore it. For that we use a carpet.”

    David, you have a misunderstanding of what Americans think “to table” means. They do not think that it means to put something _under_ a table!

    For Americans, to “table” something means to move it to a (different) table and to leave it there for the moment, with the intention that it might be considered at a later time. Sometimes the intention is that the topic will remain undiscussed indefinitely.

    It’s like putting something on the “back burner” of a stove — taking an item away from the group’s focus and putting it aside for the moment, but not saying that it will be thrown away entirely (although that might be what happens in the end).

    This is how the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it:
    “UK: to suggest something for discussion
    US: to delay discussion of a subject”

    You can check out a longer explanation at:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_words_having_different_meanings_in_American_and_British_English:_M%E2%80%93Z

    There are several other commonly-used business / meeting-procedural sorts of terms that mean differing things in British and American English. It’s really confusing!

  • Sebastian

    ‘Cul’ in cul-de-sac is French for ‘bum’,’bottom’,’arse (ass)’, as in the thing that you sit upon.

    Fun fact: the play ‘Oh! Calcutta!’, which stunned 60s and 70s audiences with full nudity, was a pun on the French phrase ‘O quel cul t’as!’, meaning ‘Oh what a lovely arse you have!’.

  • Cantor

    I mistakenly thought that “ad hoc” necessarily has a negative connotation. When it is used in the sense of “done without planning because of immediate need,” a negative connotation is certainly waiting in the shadows.

  • Grey

    I would like to add something about the use of ‘per se’, since I am Dutch and the phrase is used a lot in the Netherlands (however with a slightly different meaning)
    In fact, ‘per se’ is used meaning something like ‘necessarily’, for example we say ‘Dat hoeft niet per se.’, meaning ‘It is not really necessary’, or something like ‘Moet je dit per se doen?’ meaning ‘Do you necessarily have to do this?’

    ‘Per se’ is in fact used a lot in the Netherlands (it has become kind of an untranslatable phrase, everybody simply uses ‘per se’ in these situations) so I thought it was funny to read that it is not commonly used in English.

    I don’t think this will add a lot to the discussion on this page, but the more you know, right? 😉

  • Haris

    Hi Daniel, i did not expect to see these expressions at once. I was looking for cul-de-sac, and your post gave me the foreign expressions. thanks a lot.

  • Chris

    Carefull with cul-de-sac. With phrases, french tend to never use literal translation, making it extremely difficult for un-native speakers to relate the phrases (successfully). Please note that ‘cul’ does not mean bottom, ‘cul’ means ass. Their is a popular french phrase to have ones ass between two stools.” Avoir le cul entre deux chaises”

  • Puku

    Some more are
    1. ad. infinitum.
    2. et.al.
    3. quid-pro-quo
    4. Quad Erat Deonstradum (QED)

  • David Warley

    Having received a liberal education including some Latin and French I didn’t find any of these expressions to be at all “foreign”.

    Having some acquaintance with more demotic French, as opposed to what they teach at school, I learned that “cul” refers to a part of the anatomy as in “Baisez moi le cul” (Kiss my a***)

    So a “cul-de-sac” would be a particularly useless or problematic item. But where I come from it just means “No through road”.

    I do find American English usage to be sometimes very foreign. When at a meeting I may ask to table something that I want to talk about. Ie put it on the table so we can talk about it. I was surprised to find that my US colleagues thought I meant put it under the table where we can all ignore it. For that we use a carpet.

  • Rob

    Great site and list, but there are many other non-English (words and) phrases used in everyday English that the list would benefit from. Examples include en masse, deja vu, pro bono, c’est la vie, raison d’etra, quid pro quo, pro rata, versus, et cetera – and so on 😉

    I’m specifically talking about the things that you’d get in everyday conversation, or read in newspapers, magazines and general books. I’m not referring to famous Latin quotes (“Cogito ergo sum”, “Vini, vidi, vici”, etc.), which prove you learned about Julius Caesar and the like in your youth, or some of the more arcane Latin phrases you’d hear in legalese (“habeas corpus”, “pro tem”, “ipso facto”, etc.) – even though some phrases like “pro bono” come from the legal world, but have also moved into more normal English usage.

    I’ve enjoyed reading some of the comments here, though some people need to lighten up a bit about the literal translation versus the accepted usage. In most cases, if you look at the literal translation, it is easy to see how the everyday usage evolved from there.

    For instance, “cul-de-sac”. It means “bottom of the bag”, “end of the bag” or indeed “arse of the bag”. It refers to a turnaround road, and not a dead-end, per Daniel’s definition. Just like what happens when you get into the bottom of a bag, you have to turn around to come out again. Same with a cul-de-sac; go in, loop round, and come out again.

    As for “ad hoc”, Daniel’s definition is absolutely right. Ad hoc means “for a specific purpose”. While it is true that many ad hoc teams, organisations, committees, or whatever appear to be haphazard and without a structure or plan, that is not relevant to the definition or the usage. Ad hoc does not mean “random”. Quite the opposite, in fact. “We’ll do that ad hoc” means “We’ll do that as and when we need it”.

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