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”

  • Dale A. Wood

    The French phrase “en masse” expresses an idea that we do not have a word or short phrase for in English.
    The equivalent adverb in German is “massenweise”. In German, the words that end in “weise” are almost always adverbs.

    For an example sentence: “The Austrian troops attacked the Italian Army en masse.” That is, as a huge mass of men, with no attempt for maneuver or deception – in a frontal assault.

    The Luftwaffe based in France attacked England en masse in 1940.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree whole heartedly:
    @Peter: I get similarly miffed at those who call Burma “Myanmar”– a a name that only the MONSTROUS regime there promotes, and not the Burmese people.

    Yes, Burmese people, Burmese language, Burmese culture, Burmese cats, Burmese tiger traps, Burmese education, all from the country proudly called Burma.

    By the way, the Department of State of the United States recognizes Burma as the official name of that country, and not anything else. The Department of State is the one in charge of the foreign relations of this country. It sincerely opposes the oppressiive military regime in Burma.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @totof022 on June 19, 2007

    You need to learn to capitalize French, Latin, German, ENGLISH, American, Brit, Canadian, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Mexican, etc., each and every time that you write them in English.

    Not doing so simply makes you look hugely ignorant, and with your being French, it makes you look presumptuous, too. You wish to tell the rest of the world what to do, but you don’t want to do simple things like capitalizing proper nouns and proper adjectives.
    D.A.W.

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

    Mabe you americans and brits should invest some time and energy into (really) learning a different language (you know, what ROW speaks).

  • Jim

    It amazes me that these “I think it means…” exchanges go on and on.
    As Mom frequently said “Look it up in the dictionary!” Educate yourselves! And the claim that a word’s definition in the source language has NO relevance to its use in English is utter rubbish.
    BTW, the Latin definition of “sic” is “thus”, in English manuscripts indicating that a quote has been faithfully rendered, though it contains spelling, grammatical or usage error; essentially, it is a device for mocking the quotee.

  • Robert

    I thought “cul-de sac” meant a desireable street location, which it does, but I now know the history and source, so I am less ignorant.I like this site, my mind definitley needs this kind of help. Writing well does not come easy for me.
    Robert
    p.s.-Thank you Professor Priscilla Trowbridge from N.A.U 1978, what you did for me still means a lot to me. Never before or never after did I have a Professor travel 217 miles to a bar in old downtown Yuma just to feel the words from my story about my Native American friend Veral Vest, a wonderful charming alcoholic man who worked in a commercial laundry and and drank beer at the bar next door every day after work. He died a few years after I wrote about him and the bar. He was a good man, and I’m glad I got to know him.

  • Dale Fedderson

    The French speakers in these comments say cul does not have a risque or raunchy feel, so I believe the “cul” in cul-de-sac would be better translated as “butt”, not “ass”. For instance, we in English use “butt” to mean not just buttocks, but also the butt of a hammer–the base or bottom of the hammer.

    And I think the butt-of-the-sack implies that this kind of dead-end street MUST include a turn-around; otherwise it is just a dead-end, with no “butt”.

  • venqax

    David: Given your upset with the imperialist oppression of the Europeans who robbed you of your Farsi, you might just show them a thing or two by moving to Farsiland, wherever that might be. I am always fascinated by people who come to a place, complain about it, and refuse to leave.

    @Peter: I get similarly miffed at those sho call Burma Myanmar– a a name only the monstrous regime there promotes, not the Burmese people.

  • Peter

    David: Aside from the fact that the long-established English name of the language is “Persian”, google “Persian not Farsi” for a gazillion requests by native Persian speakers, including the The Academy of Persian Language and Literature (Persian sort of Académie française), to please stop calling their language “Farsi”.

  • maya

    WOWy!

    I knew somewhere such an ad hoc website would exist …de facto!!
    Mr Daniel, youve just got urself one cool new “stalker”!!
    peace n luv

    Ma *_________* ya

    I <3 this!!

  • Valley~*

    You know, the only times I have found myself using [sic] was when quoting from a professor lmao… good thing they took it lightly… :/

  • Lucy

    cul-de-sac – the expression comes from Catalan and not French, as one of my Catalan students pointed out. the word “cul” means the body part “bottom” (British English).

  • œ

    I, too, love this list, and like many others think it’s only fault is that it lacks completeness. I’m especially starteled that nobody has mentioned one of my all-time favourites, even in the comments. Does nobody love it but me? Like they say: de gustibus non est disputandum (there is no disputing about taste).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_gustibus_non_est_disputandum

    To be fair, I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce this in English, but luckily the written nature of internet communication spares me the embarassment of having to try.

  • David

    Hello SUSAN. Salaam! Is it Kami, not Kam? Phonetically at least? Does transliteration (a subject I haven’t thought much about), add vowels sometimes?
    I speak less than Kam/i.
    No, I don’t speak Farsi 🙂 Sorry. I see I may have been misleading… I spoke it as a child – between mother & son, but the commonest thing, it seems, is that a child loses a language as one’s parents do not speak it between them, and as one’s racist society, school, etc, beats all foreign affectations, language, out of them, us. I do hope to get it back, but live in a city which must have only a handful of Farsi speakers at most, if any, (and I can’t really learn from books).
    BUT, I can answer your question! 2 principle reasons:
    – Farsi, a fairly ancient language, has quite a small vocabulary, AND

    – Haven’t you noticed that (particularly with the Bourgeois) worldwide, people look up to/ love/ are obsessed with English and/ or French. The Two Kings of European “language Imperialism” and imposition. (Spanish might be the most widely spoken, but I have another thesis why Spanish doesn’t have so many people pulling themselves off to it’s sounds… well, funny, because those most enamoured with [affected, homo-repressed, King lisping] Spanish, tend to be people from the English speaking world, and… the French! 🙂 At least, I’ve known too many – incidentally, just met a French wanker during Carnaval who sometimes insisted we speak Spanish instead of Portugese!?!?!?!?!
    So,
    1) Necessity, “modernising” world
    2) European aspirations.

    Good on them, I agree, French is nicer on the tongue and ears than English, if it were a choice between the two.

    Hope not to bore or estrange you,
    Much love, Khoda-Hafez.
    Davood.

  • Susan H

    @David tanho kami farsi baladam. 🙂 I’m curious as to why so many persian words appear to derive from the french? i.e. be resturan raftam va goftam “lotfan yek shireeni, merci” (I hope that’s correct)

  • David

    Ha ha, Peter. I put myself RIGHT out there, open to so many criticisms – I support wildly alleging (even) without fact, proof, or even thought! That is IF it comes from a wildly intelligent place – judge whoever may.
    However, you have called me on something erroneous, and you are wrong. Of course we can call it Farsi – just because some or many Iranians insist on the idea of “Persian” as their nationality / language, does not make it a law or even a rule. You should be aware that just when you think you are asserting the will of some “progressive” idea encompassing Persia, Iran, Empire, 20thC(.com), Pre & Post Revolution, internal and/or external IMPOSITION – you are wrong! There are valid arguments, self determined and not, for and against your point.
    Most worthwhile Iranians don’t care that much, but sometimes:
    1) My head is up my bum, I don’t understand one darned thing about Imperial History, so separating it’s progressive points from the oppressive terror ain’t gonna happen, 2) Show me the money, I’m one of millions of Bourgeois Iranian Diaspora, hyper conservative cunts, campaigning against the dissolution of extreme class (up to and including royal) inequities in Iran… veiling that in easy, propagandistic slander about… veils, 3) They stole it from us, and now we’re taking it back, 4) Go home GRINGO, don’t you tell us what we want to call it! Etc. Ad nauseum 🙂
    Kisses. Farsi Baladi?

  • Peter

    @David: it’s “Persian”, not “Farsi”.

  • Doug

    “You should all speak french ^^.”

    Il y a beaucoup de nous qui le parlons, même ici aux Etats-Unis.

  • Giveback

    Daniel,

    This is yet another good and useful article.
    While you are correct, I think it is also important to emphasize that “ad hoc” is used in the context of bringing across something that is unplanned. Thanks.

  • David

    PS. I ranted and even forgot to remind you of simple history – that French is such a large influence, and French terms are so common due to an Aristocratic French presence in England. The ruling classes really did engage so much with French as another way to separate themselves from the worthless, common people. English was the vulgar language – lettuce take it back!

  • David

    I knew them all, but can only remember using ‘status quo’ or ‘per se’. Status quo when speaking, and per se when writing, why?
    Status quo is simply the best way to talk about “the way things are”, particularly in terms of conservative politics (from all sides of the spectrum, partisan fool), stopping us from the kind of progress that leaves people stupid, cruel and more destructive than any other, animal species.
    Per se is a LITTLE retarded and up yourself, but is super economical and fits nicely at the end of a sentence.
    Cul de sac, well, I would only use it in the literal – in other contexts, and the other 3 terms, are stodgy – used by pretentious, elitist people, out of touch with the times 🙂 And yes, trying not to be a fascist in terms of style and little would be gained pandering to lowest common denominators, but is the instinct to use the word not unconsciously a form of showing off, instead of elucidation.
    Sticking to the examples above:
    De Facto could be replaced by NOTHING, and the sentence is fantastic still!
    Vis-a-vis, “in relation to” would have served far better and is not some wanker, wanking.
    Ad hoc, MAYBE, but think about it – the World Bank is mercenary, as is probably any organisation “forming ad hoc groups” – it wouldn’t be exaggerated and probably far truer to say “conspired to form a group” or some such. In this case, the ad hoc is very economical (I luurve economising you can see), but it shrouds meaning, I believe. Particularly because only about 5% or less people in the English speaking world would know or understand it.
    OKAY, so you are talking to someone (writing for them), the idea of “Imperialism” is central – a term certainly, poorly understood. You would say many other things and probably even give a definition, (re the context), to help someone understand.
    Yet a term like ad hoc just isn’t worth it’s (small) weight!
    You saw that re, before the previous sentence? Another valid, economical replacement for oh so stodgiest “vis-a-vis”!
    Elitism is not all bad, but people, wake up to how using or maintaining it in language is not always so smart, necessary or even the best way to express.
    Oh, oui, the richness of French terms in the English language. Well, boring, how about we look to all the other cultures and alien languages to see what riches we could adapt for more LYRICAL, even concise, meaning.
    Bisous. (Kisses).

  • Gaël

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

  • Chuck R.

    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.

    Sayonara.

  • az

    I always thought cul-de-sac meant no entry. I didn’t know it meant dead end. I am so glad I know what it means.

  • AltMichael

    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.

  • SuccessfulWebWomen

    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
    Yani

  • Nick Imhoff

    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.

  • Mario R.

    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.

  • joseph rogers

    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.

  • raheleh mehrrafiei

    I really didn’t know them
    they were good to know thank you very much

  • OneNightStanzas

    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?

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