Too Much French Vocabulary Is the Haute of Hauteur
Thanks to the longstanding political and social influence of France on what is now the United Kingdom, French and its dialects have had a significant impact on the English language. Linguists estimate that nearly one-third of English words are derived from French, and though some are more efficient or evocative in meaning than words that evolved from Old English, terms that ostentatiously signal their place of origin should be used in moderation.
Many words we take for granted stem from French, among them some of the terms most closely associated with the United States, such as equality, justice, and liberty. However, Gallicisms, expressions and idioms clearly identifiable as French (though they often have become naturalized citizens in English), are also numerous.
For example, many speakers of American English use one or more phrases beginning with the French word for good: “bon appetit” (literally “good appetite,” meaning “enjoy your meal”), “bon mot” (literally “good piece,” meaning “witty remark”), “bon vivant” (literally “good liver,” meaning “one who lives well”), and “bon voyage” (literally, “good journey,” meaning “enjoy your trip”). The first and last are universally familiar, but “bon mot” and “bon vivant” are less widely known.
And although most well-educated people understand what a coup de grace is, it would be considered pretentious to write of a coup de foudre (literally, “strike of thunder,” meaning “love at first sight”), a coup de maitre (literally, “stroke of the master,” meaning “masterstroke”), a coup de theatre (literally, “stroke of theater,” meaning “dramatic turn of events”), or a coup d’oeil (literally, “strike of the eye,” meaning “glance”).
Likewise, many other French terms may be at best vaguely familiar to readers, and though readers may not mind going to the dictionary once or twice, writers should be cautious about annoying them by lacing their work with too many words or phrases such as habitué (“one who frequents a place”), “idée fixe” (“obsession”), louche (“questionable, or arousing suspicion”), and manque (“failure”).
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