French Words with New Meanings in English

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to the Norman Conquest, and to the long dominance of France in European culture and politics, almost half the words and phrases in the English lexicon (including that of its American variety) are derived from French. The list below consists of words used in American English that acquired one or more senses distinct from that or those of the French words from which they are descended. After each term, the American English meaning(s) is/are listed, followed in parentheses by the French meaning(s).

1. accoutrement: accompanying items or accessories (a ludicrous costume or tasteless attire)
2. après-ski: socializing after skiing (snow boots)
3. auteur: a film director or other artist who artistically dominates a creative endeavor (an author)
4. au naturel: naked (acting or looking natural, unaltered or unadulterated)
5. bête noire: someone or something avoided or disliked out of fear (someone or something hated)
6. boutique: a shop selling designer or distinctive clothing, or, as an adjective, describing a small, exclusive business (a shop)
7. boutonnière: a flower placed in a buttonhole (a buttonhole)
8. chef: a professional cook (a boss)
9. claque: a group of admirers (a group of theatergoers paid either to applaud or to criticize a performance)
10. corsage: flowers worn on a woman’s dress or around her wrist (a woman’s chest, and attire covering this area)
11. coup: a forced change of government (a hit)
12. coup de main: surprise attack (give a hand)
13. debut: a first performance by an artist or entertainer (a beginning)
14. décolletage: a low neckline, cleavage (lowering a neckline, or, in agricultural and technical contexts, cutting)
15. en masse: a group or mass moving as one entity (a collection or crowd)
16. entrée: an entrance, or the main course of a meal (an entrance, or appetizers preceding a meal or before the main course)
17. épée: a specific fencing sword (a sword)
18. exposé: published material pertaining to a fraud or scandal (a report or talk)
19. hors d’oeuvre: a snack (the first course of a meal)
20. outré: unusual (exaggerated or extravagant, or outraged)
21. précis: a summary (accurate, precise; also, an abridged textbook)
22. premiere: a first performance or presentation (first)
23. recherché: obscure, pretentious (sophisticated, studied)
24. rendezvous: a clandestine meeting, or a location for an appointed meeting or reunion or a joining of two spacecraft (an appointment, date, or meeting)
25. reprise: a repetition of a piece of music during a performance (an alternate version or cover version, or rebroadcast)
26. résumé: an employment history with a list of qualifications (a summary)
27. risqué: sexually provocative (risky)
28. seance: a gathering to communicate with spirits (a meeting or session)
29. touché: acknowledgment of a point made, or of a hit in fencing (emotionally touched)
30. vignette: a brief description or scene (a small picture)

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1 Response to “French Words with New Meanings in English”

  • Dale A. Wood

    A quite interesting explanation. Thank you:
    “en masse”: a group or mass moving as one entity (a collection or crowd). We need an ENGLISH word for this, rather than relying on French, Latin, or German for it.

    “Coup”, as in a forced change of government, is actually a contraction of “coup d’etat” – a phrase that is much more explanatory and precise.
    Also “coup” is to be confused with “coupe”, a kind of automobile.
    Who cares if the government of Venezuela, Vietnam, or the Vatican City had a “coupe” yesterday?

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