6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know

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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 thoughts on “6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know”

  1. I believe the issue with cul-de-sac might be solved by looking at the word cul. It can mean kill, ass, bottom. All of these words can be replaced by the word END. I think the original translation would have been END which can relate to killing: end life, one’s ass= one’s end. And the end or bottom of the sac. Just a supposition but I think this may be feesable.

  2. these words can be commonly found on articles related to law as to the rules and some bills. i have encountered these six words from high school and mostly in college years. they are more likely to be tricky in some times for those who never come across these foreign words.

  3. Try ‘Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebelum’.
    Or, ‘Ave duci nova, similis duci seneci’.
    They’re two of my favourites from early school days.

  4. sic is from latin meaning “as it was”; so if there was a spelling mistake in quote in an article, the writer would add [sic] after it to show that was the original spelling

  5. I really this kind of posts (I read similar one at Copyblogger’s). They are essential for non-natives trying to maintain a quality blog.

    Thanks so much.

    I met Carpe Diem here. It roughly means “seize the day”.

  6. For Ad Hoc- MS Word thesaurus has unplanned, informal, impromptu, improvised, off the cuff etc for ad hoc- quiet the opposite. I’m not sure which is correct but Word being so popular most people are likely to beleive it. its odd that a word could be known and used with an opposite meaning rather than a similar one….

  7. I think the confusion about ad hoc is that it usually refers to a short term scenario. An ad hoc commission might be formed on short notice to address a single issue and then dissolved, as opposed to a standing committee that deals with an ongoing set of issues. It gives a sense of being impromptu, but that specific purpose or situation is still what defines the phrase.

  8. Ad hoc means “to this” “for this” (translating latin – my language, then my language – english, not really elegant). I like Word’s explanations. Vis-à-vis’ meaning as an expression (it has “-” between the words, therefore is not ment litterally I would say) was explained above.

    Interesting site, a bit more research would not hurt, though. There are free Latin dictionaries on the web.

  9. frl, it is quite difficult to follow your line of though.

    Anyway the literal translation of some Latin words and expressions is of no use when it comes to their usage within the English language.

    Interesting comment, but a bit more research would not hurt 🙂 .

  10. Thanks for this particular list. As you point out, these phrases are similar in frequency of usage, and similar also in the kinds of material where they are found. Other phrases would have great value, if added to this article, yet would change the concept which lumped these not-quite-randomly-selected phrases together. Besides, covering other phrases leaves room for other articles.

    I find the explanation for ‘ad hoc’ to be subtly different than the context I usually associate with the phrase.

    And ad hoc committee is certainly a frequent usage. But I think of ad hoc as being the opposite of well planned. Committees are usually designed, budgeted, apportioned and assigned at the start of a term for an organization. An ad hoc committee would be formed *outside* this planning process. So, yes, ‘purpose built’ could apply, from one perspective, but purpose built sounds similar to having skilled craftsmen custom build a display case. In the latter case, the result is specially crafted, tailored, and produced to meet a specific and exacting need.

    I usually think of ad hoc as ‘this was handy’ type construction, that the first thing that kind of worked was put into use, with little planning, whatever craftsmanship that happened to be applied was what was available, rather than what was specified. Ad hoc implies there was no specification or agreed upon plan. “He kicked through the wall, and ducked out the ad hoc exit.”

    Similar to ‘jerry rigged’, ad hoc means, to me, ‘made do’. Ad hoc describes the process of forming the committee, and might imply the possibility of impaired function due to limited planning in establishing the committee. Outside using ‘ad hoc’ to describe committees, I find ad hoc also describes how a process or procedure came to be applied – someone thought it might be a good enough idea at the time. The opposite of ad hoc would be planned, reviewed, and with consensus.

  11. At first I was suprised that these six “foriegn” words or phrases needed explanation, they are in common usage in England and they are in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) having been subsumed into English.

    Then I read the many comments and realised that this site is primarily used by Americans and others for whom English is not their first language (you may read the conjuction however you wish) and I would like to commend you on knowing your audience and on the clarity of your explanation (except for sic – the explanation there was very poor – Jim, comment 47, explained it the best).

  12. Daily Writing Tips Vocabulary Test 1
    Posted: 31 Oct 2007 10:04 AM CDT

    Different from, Different to, Different than

    I was wondering if i can be indifferent to someone (in the sense of lack of interest ), can I say I am different to someone to mean the opposite?

  13. cul de sac = dead end street

    a few years ago, there was indonesian movie called kuldesak, i believe person who give title to that movie was inspired by the word cul de sac.

    To be honest, for me the ” cul de sac” idiom is new for me. In order to widen our knowledge,it is better if daillywritingtips could update foreigh expression regularly.

    many thanks

    i gede

  14. I’ve just joined this sight I enjoyed the Yidish words,grammer and now the foriegn words. I want to thank the author. I plan to study more. I will only post this one time though. I want to know why do so many people spend so much time typing away and often saying negative things about and to people. they must be sooooooooo loooooooooooonely.
    I admit it is difficult not to read some of them after your writing/lessons but I don’t enjoy it. Most of them at least, it is like watching a car wreck. So I will just finish by saying; yes, I’m writing this once, but please most of you leave your computer! Get a life. Make some friends.

  15. “Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebelum”

    heh. sadly, i’m a chick.

    kinjal, that is very not how you pronounce it. it’s vees-a-vee – basically how it looks. usually the esses are silent in french but the first one here is special because it’s in front of a vowel.

    also, to whoever made the dumb remark about how we should just learn proper english instead… that’s pretty ignorant. a lot of these phrases don’t have an exact analogue in english, which is why people use them. it’s not to sound pretentious, it’s to get the point across better.

    one of my favourites is l’esprit de l’escalier (i don’t know how to do accents in this text box). it refers to that moment when you’re walking away from a conversation and you suddenly think of the devastatingly clever and witty comment you should have made several minutes ago when, instead, you responded by looking at your feet and mumbling something lame.

  16. plaese help me i was learning speaking english……
    i believe if often that articel can easly understanding language english

  17. i believe Ahmad Dani from DEWA band was inspired by the word cul de sac in his song that title kuldesak, i think he not creative!

  18. Hmmm…

    I thought per se meant as such….

    And yeah…there’s one more popular one called C’est la vie…meaning that’s life.


  20. Jason: 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…

    Folk etymology. (meaning not true). I’ve never heard that one before.

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

    You should note that most French terms used in English are medieval, not modern; it really does mean “face”.

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

    It’s the same meaning. If the coffee shop is across from the bank, it’s “face to face” with the bank; though I think you’d have to say “vis-à-vis TO the bank”. It can also be used as a noun (or maybe it’s a substantive adjective)

    ElGigante Verdoso: Useful list. Another quite usual expression is “ipso facto” thta means something like “right now”

    It means “by that fact itself”, or “by that very fact”.

    Daniel: Anyway the literal translation of some Latin words and expressions is of no use when it comes to their usage within the English language.


    Richa: I was wondering if i can be indifferent to someone (in the sense of lack of interest ), can I say I am different to someone to mean the opposite?


  21. Found this through Dumb Little Man – really interesting piece.
    I knew how/where to use all 6 of these, but I didn’t know where they came from or their “meanings,” as it were. I never knew ‘cul-de-sac’ translates literally as ‘bottom of a sack,’ for example. Really interesting.

    I use “ibid.” a lot. Again, I know how/where to use it but I have no idea how it came to be used or what it means. I assume it’s from Latin – anyone know?

    and @ SaltyDawg… I think there is a rule about italics. It depends how “naturalised” a foreign phrase as become in the English language. I don’t think you’d italicise “c’est la vie” or “ad hoc,” but you probably would with “per se” (it seems to lend itself to italics just for emphasis anyway) and “vis-a-vis.” Interesting question. Is there a rule, anyone?

  22. The subject above was very interesting because, ive never heard some of these words, or have heard them and didnt know what they meant. it related to ch. 1 because ch.1 talked about how english comes from many different languages and some of the difficulties people have from learing it as a second language.

  23. well i think the subject was very very very interesting because i have never heard of words like. but they were very interesting and weird so thats all i got to say about that.

  24. This article was related to chapter 1 because it is telling you how to communicate across cultures. It expresses how important it is to not use foreign expressions if your audience is not suited for it. The article says not use such foreign expressions to sound smart because it will only make you sound foolish. This article is just another you can communicate across cultures depending on your audience.

  25. Interesting list.

    It’s a big advantage speaking different languages and knowing as non-English Native Speaker immediately what is meant.

    Funny enough: We use in German all these expressions except “cul de sac”

    Have fun and success

  26. Let me make my educated attempt at “affect” and “effect”.

    As a verb:
    “affect” means to have an influence on something; to change it
    “effect” means to bring something into being
    Some languages use different tenses for affected objects and effected objects.

    As a noun:
    The nominalization of both “affect” and “effect” is “effect”, which is very confusing.
    “Affect” as a noun has the additional meanings stated above.

    And to agree with a previous poster, I have always heard “cul-de-sac” to refer to a dead end street with a rounded end, there usually being at least 3 houses on the rounded part.

    Here’s a foreign expression I love, “That wants to be a ” for something that’s not up to standards. It comes from German. I’ve never heard it used in English.

  27. I agree with those who think the list is a great start but a bit short.

    Off the top of my head, I’d add: raison d’etre (reason of being?) and quid pro quo (reciprocating). Any foreign version of “goodbye” has a certain panache.


  28. One of my favorites is “Dum spiro spero”, which means “While I breathe, I hope”.

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