6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know

background image 182

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)

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

129 thoughts on “6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know”

  1. Wayne,

    People often use SIC to highlight an error on quotes.


    The NY Times article described “the new phenomenom [sic]” in the city.

  2. I saw your comment on ProBlogger and followed it here to find your site. What a treat! As a writer I am always looking for new writing sites. This is a great list, by the way.

  3. This is a very interesting list, although it’s not complete. There are many other foreign expressions that people should integrate into their vocabulary more often. Expressions like: “Cogito ergo sum”, “veni, vidi, vici”, “tete-a-tete”, “carpe diem”, etc. The more the better 🙂

    Actually, we should all start learning Latin again 🙂

  4. Yeah there are many others that could be included. I tried to focus on the ones that are “non-trivial” and widely used around newspapers.

    “veni, vidi, vici” is for sure a nice latin phrase. But I think you would use it only if you are writing about ancient rome :).

  5. I’ve always wondered what “sic” means? Why and how is used properly? BTW – love the site, great idea!

  6. I see Carpe Diem relatively frequently, but the others only come up when I’m playing Rome:Total War (A video game) 🙂

    Thank you for the article though, it was very enlightening. Turns out I’ve been vis-a-vis incorrectly all this time.

    Now how about enlightening us on the mysteries of a more common language, like English? For example, for non native English speakers like myself, what the heck is the difference between effect and affect?


  7. 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.

    I had no idea it meant bottom of a sack

  8. 60 in 3, I will cover effect and affect on a “ad hoc” post.

    You can also read the comments over this post where some people already discussed about it:

  9. 60 in 3, There’s a pretty comprehensive site with a bunch of these “similar word pairs” here:


  10. Dave, either “affect” or “effect” can be used as either a noun or a verb.

    “Affect” as a noun means “emotion”.

    “Affect” as a verb means “to influence”.

    “Effect” as a noun means “a result”.

    “Effect” as a verb means “to accomplish”.

  11. Bottom of a sack is the english translation word for word of cul-de-sac. But when we say that in french, yes it means dead-end street.

    I think you guys use french’s expressions like “Déjà-vu”, and “Rendez-vous”. Im i wrong?

    You should all speak french ^^.

  12. I knew them all…
    … But no glory about it!

    I am a native french speaker and studied latin (among french, german end english) in high school.

    BTW. cul de sac literally does not mean “bottom of bag” but “ass of bag” (cul means ass ant sack means bag…

    Mabe you americans and brits should invest some time and energy into (really) learning a different language (you know, what ROW speaks).This knowledge would help you better understang community around you and/hopefully) stop playing such an unrealistic and endless role into most of the wars in the world now….

  13. Bumpy, Dave, Daniel and Grant,
    Thank you for your tips. Will read them through and see if I can make sense of them all. And Daniel, thank you for the joke 🙂


  14. Back to the [sic] comment.

    It is to show a quote in its orignal form. What i mean is including spelling mistakes and gramitcal errors. A stand quote won’t include a [sic] if it is grammitccally correct.

    Ripped from Wikipedia

    The word sic may be used either to show that an uncommon or archaic usage is reported faithfully: for instance, quoting the U.S. Constitution:

    The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker…

    or to highlight an error, often for the purpose of ridicule or irony, as in this example:

    Warehouse has been around for 30 years and has 263 stores, suggesting a large fan base. The chain sums up its appeal thus: “styley [sic], confident, sexy, glamorous, edgy, clean and individual, with it’s [sic] finger on the fashion pulse

  15. Thought I’d share another one for you, as I was curious and just looked it up: ergo: (air-go)conj. Latin for “therefore,” often used in legal writings. Its most famous use was in Cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am” principle by French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

  16. Bumpy is right, but it should probably be said that there are stress and pronunciation differences between the verb and noun counterparts of affect.

    affect (2nd syllable stress uh-fect) = verb
    The price of gas affects travel.

    affect (1st syllable stress aa-fect : same “a” sound as in “at”) = noun
    She has a weird affect.

  17. @Gal:

    The difference between affect and effect is pretty subtle, and native english speakers get it wrong all the time.

    My understanding is that that “affect” is a verb while “effect” is a noun. See the following examples:

    “The lighting in the presentation had a strong effect.”


    “That scene in the film did not affect me.”

    I think you’ll often see “affect” used more in situations that deal with emotions. Notice the same kind of difference between:

    “The attack was effective” and “My girlfriend is affectionate.”

  18. Actually, [sic] means “said in context”. It basically means that you are quoting someone who made an error, for example: “They misunderestimated [sic] me”, said Bush…

  19. In addendum to the [sic] comments, It’s not only used to show grammatical errors, but used in a general term to mean that the spelling or information provided is correct and not a typo.

    Say there is a man who has 250 cars was interviewed because he witnessed a crime… The 250 cars may be referenced but since it is not a main part of the article it may be thought of as a typo. [sic] may be used in such a situation to reaffirm that the stated information is not a typo.

    “John Doe, a Local man and owner of 250 [sic] cars himself witnessed the crime”

    This is a bad example, but you get the idea. [sic] simply means that something which might appear to be a writers error is intended to be as written and is not a typo.

  20. This is good reading for all who plan to visit these countries…. better know what you might be saying without even trying to.

  21. RE: Vis-à-Vis.. I think you believe the word “Vis” should mean visage(face). However, the word “vis” means screw(the drywall type).

  22. I think I have it – It’s used to show the writer isn’t the one making the mistake and it can also be a mistake that was done on purpose? Thanks!

  23. Umm…

    Since when is a dead end street a cul de sac? Last time I checked, a dead end street was exactly that. A dead end. Meaning, you go along until the road doesn’t connect to any other streets and terminates in someone’s yard or something of that nature. You’re forced to turn around in the nearest driveway, once you’ve realized your mistake. A cul de sac is also a road that doesn’t connect to another street, but instead of it just ending without any notice, there’s a round turn-around at the end. Similar to the shape of a needle, but more like “the bottom of a sack”. Duh!

  24. ADregely, I did not say “vis” means face in French.

    Vis-à-vis, though, should mean face to face, which is what I wrote.

  25. Its nice to see this list, but it would also be helpful if the pronounciation of these words/phrases was mentioned. for example, vis-a-vis is pronounces we-a-we (or am i wrong?)

  26. Humm, perhaps I’m wrong, but the “cul” in “cul-de-sac” is kind of a slang, means “asshole”. I’m not a latin student, but portuguese is my first language, and we have the word “cu” for “asshole”.

  27. Erm…ad hoc means “NOT specific”. An ad hoc group doing things ad hoc is actually a bunch of random people doing some things with no real plan.

  28. @Claudio, “cul-de-sac” has nothing to do with “asshole.” It comes from the French, not from the Latin… and while “cul” do stand for “ass” the expression has a complete different meaning.

    @Joseph, I also believe your definition for “ad hoc” is wrong. What source did you use to verify that?

    Check the Wikipedia entry for that:

  29. In my experience Ad hoc is more frequently used in its other sense, of something improvised, created on the apur of the moment.

    Vis-à-vis also means accross, like in “the coffee shop is vis-à-vis the bank”.

  30. [sic], funny i’ve always thought it stood only for “same in context” – which is, i guess, a good way to remember what it means.
    Anyone knows if it is used in other written languages?

  31. I am also in doubt regarding SIC now. The usage is clear, but I am not sure if it really comes from the Latin sic or if it is an acronym as people mentioned. I will research about it.

  32. As far as I know, sic is used in other languages as well and it comes from the Latin sic, meaning ‘so’ or ‘like that’.
    Same sic appears in the Latin proverb: Sic transit gloria mundi – So passes the glory of the World.

    Great article Daniel, here are my suggestions for the sequel: nota bene, circa, enfant terrible, faux pas and of course menage a trois. 😉

  33. “sic” means “this is how the dumb idiot we’re quoting put it, it’s not a typographical error on our part”.

  34. I agree with you Jim. I studied Latin a long time ago and teach English at present (and use proofreading symbols). “Sic” means “so” or “as” in Latin, and when used in proofing means “as written.”

  35. Also forgotten:

    “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

  36. The very, very litteral meaning of cul-de-sac would actually be the ass of a sack, but it’s become such a normal expression, no one, even in France, really considers “ass” being vulgar in that context.

  37. This site is cute. The responses varied, yet telling.

    Many of the words presented here today are (or used to be) the mainstay (aha backbone) of my profession, withholding of course, what that profession was!

    Certain words excite me. I wonder if this group has any words that just seem to dazzle them when they hear them spoken?

    One particular word I love is “Synecdoche’s.” Another is “Soliloquy.” I have so many more that I love…

    Do any of you have words you love?

    Thanks for such a gleeful and refreshing board.

  38. ryke
    neither in catalunya, spain, where we speak catalan. the words mean the same in catalan other in french, dought does two languages are very close.

Leave a Comment