French and Latin Diplomatic Terms

By Mark Nichol

For hundreds of years, France was a world power militarily, economically, and culturally, and thus its language became the political, well, lingua franca. Although the nation is no longer a superpower (yet influential in world affairs), the French language is still well represented in the vocabulary of diplomacy—as is its precursor, Latin. This post lists and defines words adopted directly from French (and Latin) into diplomatic discourse, now dominated by English. (Each term is followed by an English translation. Latin terms are designated with the abbreviation L.; all other terms are from French.)

Acte final (“final act”): A formal statement summarizing the results of a conference between representatives of two or more nations.

Agrément (“agreement”): Approval by a nation’s government of a proposed new ambassador or other diplomat to represent another nation’s interest in the first nation before the diplomat is appointed

Aide mémoire (“memory aid”): A summary of key points of an official conversation between representatives of two nations, prepared by one party and submitted to the other at the end of the meeting or at a later time to aid memory.

Alternat (“alternate”): The principle that when two or more nations enter into an agreement, each nation’s official designation will be listed first on its respective copy of the agreement when copies are distributed to representatives of each nation.

Ambassador extraordinary and ambassador plenipotentiary: These phrases are alterations of, rather than direct borrowings from, French, but the syntax of compound nouns consisting of postpositive adjectives (in which an adjective that further specifies a noun follows the noun) is an artifact of French. (Other examples include “attorney general.”)

Attaché (“attached”): Any of several various officers in an embassy, including one or more attachés representing the military branches of the nation represented by the embassy; professional specialists known as, for example, the cultural attaché; or junior ambassadorial officers. Also, part of the phrase “attaché case,” denoting a type of briefcase, originally used by such officers to carry documents, that became popular for general use.

Bout de papier (“piece of paper”): A document for conveying information between an embassy and the government of the host nation that is more informal than an aide memoire or a memorandum.

Chargé d’affaires, a.i. (“in charge of business in the interim”): Originally, without the abbreviation (for “ad interim”), the designation for an embassy official ranking below an ambassador or a minister; now, with the abbreviation, the term for an official substituting for the ambassador in his or her absence.

Communiqué (“communication”): A carefully managed and innocuous public statement summarizing the result of a meeting between representatives of two or more nations. By extension, a synonym, in general usage, for bulletin.

Concordat (“agreement”): An agreement between one or more nations and the Vatican.

Consul (L., “one who consults”): Any one of various officials, subordinate to an ambassador, who represents a nation’s political and economic interests in a major city of another nation and supports the interests of other citizens of his or her nation who are visiting, or living in, the host nation. The office of a consul is a consulate, a lower-ranking official is a vice consul, and an honorary consul is a citizen of a host nation appointed by another nation to represent its interests in the absence of a consulate and its officials. During the time of the Roman Republic, and briefly in France following the French Revolution, the term denoted one of two (in Rome) or three (in France) chief magistrates who led the government.

Demarché (“walk”): An official overture by an ambassadorial diplomat to representatives of a host nation about a matter of concern to the diplomat’s nation, usually made in conjunction with a request for action or a decision on the part of the host nation. The term derives from the notion of the diplomat walking to the office of a host nation’s representative to discuss the matter in question.

Détente (“relaxation”): An easing of tension between nations.

Entente (“understanding”): A relationship between two or more nations with similar interests or objectives, resulting in an oral or written agreement less formal than a treaty (from the phrase “entente cordial,” or “friendly understanding”). By extension, the term also denotes a coalition of parties to such a relationship.

Exequatur (L., “let him perform”): a document issued by the government of a host nation that authorizes a consul to perform his or her duties in that nation.

Ex gracia (L., “by grace”): An action performed as a gesture of goodwill rather than an obligation.

Modus vivendi (L., “manner of living”): A temporary interim written agreement composed as a record that stands until the final document is completed. In general usage, denotes a practical compromise or a way of life.

Persona non grata (L., “unacceptable person”): A person from another nation that the government of a host nation considers unacceptable or unwelcome. By extension in general usage, any such person in a social situation.

Rapporteur (“reporter”): A representative of a committee or a subcommittee responsible for preparing a summary of its proceedings.

Rapprochement (“a bringing together”): Establishment of improved relations between two nations. By extension in general usage, any such reconciliation between any two parties.

Tour d’horizon (“overview”): A general discussion between diplomats of different nations about topics that concern both or all nations.

Ultimatum (L., “final”): A final statement of position issued by representatives of one nation’s government to another, sometimes as a preliminary to a declaration of war. By extension in general usage, any statement by one party to another expressing a demand that will, if not met, result in stated or implied consequences.

Visa (L., “seen”): A document authorizing a citizen of one nation temporary or permanent residence in another nation.

Also, the following abbreviations are employed in social correspondence between diplomats and representatives of a host nation as shorthand for various sentiments:

P.C.:pour condoler” (“for sympathy”)

P.F.:pour féliciter” (“for congratulations”)

P.M.:pour memoire” (“for a reminder”)

P.P.:pour presenter” (“for introduction”)

P.P.C.:pour prendre congé” (“for taking leave”)

P.R.:pour remercier” (“for thanks”)


6 Responses to “French and Latin Diplomatic Terms”

  • D.A.W.

    Other terms in aviation from American English:
    nose, belly, flap, pod, slat, spoiler, stick, yoke, vortex generator, tailhook.
    Maybe this one comes from French: pitot tube.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Another such term that has French and/or Latin roots: a “diplomatic memorandum”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the Roman Republic, there were two consuls, and they had to agree with each other before they could do anything. Then in times of crisis, the Senate could appoint someone with more power: the DICTATOR in Latin. A significant limit on the Dictator was that his powers expired after just one year.

  • Dale A. Wood

    When it comes to science and technology, I did read a pertinent statement about France. They writer suggested that the last significant technical word that came from French was “chauffeur”. I suppose that this one came after “garage”.
    They writer was not quite correct, considering that aviation is slightly newer than automotive technology. In aviation, the pertinent words from French are the following: fuselage, empennage, nacelle, and hangar.
    “Aileron” seems to come from Greek, but otherwise the general terminology is from American English: wing, tail, rudder, elevator, cockpit, landing gear, horizontal stabilizer, propeller, engine, turbojet, airport, taxiway.
    ————————————————
    Then there are those awful British words “undercarriage”, “windscreen”, and “aerodrome”.
    ———————————————
    In German, they tend to use “Motor” rather than “engine”, but heck, “Motor” is practically English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I would say that all of the five permanent members of the Security Council are superpowers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the PRC (People’s Republic of China). This is for two simple reasons:
    a) They all possess substantial numbers of thermonuclear weapons, and
    b) They all have the veto power in the Security Council of the United Nations.

  • D.A.W.

    There is ancient word, from Greek, that is a scarce diplomatic word that did not come from French: “aegis”. For example: “This problem in Djibouti comes under the aegis of the Secretary General and the Ambassador from France.” This means that it is in their domain to handle.
    “The problem of millions fleeing Syria falls under the aegis of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.”
    Also, in the buildings of the United Nations in New York City and elsewhere, the two standard languages for routine things are English and French. What I mean is dual marking for things like “push” and “pull” on doors, for restrooms: “Men” and “Hommes”, “Women” and “Femmes”.
    I have never been to a U.N. building, so have the gone for “Monsieurs” and “Mesdames”?
    I liked it at a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. where they wrote “Caballeros” and “Damas”. Ah, I am a caballero for the day!

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