French Phrases

Here’s a list of French phrases and sayings that are used in English often enough to have become part of the language. Many of these relate to those French preoccupations, fashion and food.

À la carte On the menu, with each dish priced.
À la mode Fashionable; also, in the USA, with ice cream.
Agent provocateur A police spy employed to induce or incite a suspected person or group to commit an incriminating act.
Aide-de-camp An officer who assists a general in his military duties.
Aide-mémoire An aid to memory.
Après-ski Socializing after a skiing session. Also a name a type of footwear worn after removing ski boots.
Art nouveau a style of art developed towards the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by ornamentation based on organic or foliate forms and by its asymmetric and curvaceous lines.
Au contraire To the contrary. Often used with an arch or rather camp form of delivery.
Au naturel Undressed or ‘in a natural state’.
Au pair A young foreigner, usually female, who undertakes domestic tasks in exchange for accommodation.
Au revoir Farewell for the time being. Sometimes given in English in the jokey au reservoir version.
Avant garde The pioneers or innovators in art in a particular period. Also, a military term, meaning vanguard or advance guard.
Carte blanche Having free rein to choose whatever course of action you want.
Cause célèbre An issue arousing widespread controversy or debate. An English invention, rarely used in France.
C’est la vie That’s life or such is life. Often used in disappointed resignation following some bad fortune.
Chaise longue ‘Long chair‘ – a form of sofa with an elongated seat long enough to support the legs. Of tern erroneously called a chaise lounge in the USA. This isn’t the derivation of either the noun of verb lounge though, which both long pre-date the invention of chaise longues.
Cherchez la femme Literally, “look for the woman.”
Cinéma vérité A form of filmmaking that combines documentary-style techniques to tell a story.
Cordon bleu High quality, especially of cooking.
Coup d’état An abrupt overthrow of a government through unconstitutional means, for example, by force, or by occupation of government structures during the leader’s absence.
Coup de grâce Originally a blow by which one condemned or mortally wounded is ‘put out of his misery’. Figuratively, a finishing stroke, one that settles or puts an end to something.
Crème de la crème The best of the best. Literally the cream of the cream.
Cul-de-sac A thoroughfare that is closed at one end – a blind alley. Also, figuratively, a venture leading to no successful outcome.
Déjà vu The feeling of having seen or experienced something before. Literally ‘already seen‘.
De rigueur Obligatory or expected, especially with reference to fashion.
Double entendre A word or phrase that has a double meaning – one of which is often vulgar or sexual in nature. A staple form of British toilet humour – Carry On films would be virtually silent without it. For example, see ‘gone for a P‘ in wee-wee.
Éminence grise A powerful adviser or decision-maker who operates secretly or unofficially. Literally ‘gray eminence‘.
Enfant terrible Literally, a “terrible child”. It is sometimes used to describe unruly children. More commonly, it is used in relation to adults who cause trouble by unorthodox or ill-considered speech or behaviour – especially those who have habitually done this from an early age.
En route On the way.
En suite A series of rooms that adjoin each other, forming a suite.
Esprit de corps The regard entertained by the members of a group, especially a military unit, for the honour and interests of the group as a whole. Literally, ‘spirit of the corps‘.
Fait accompli An irreversible action that has happened before those affected by it knew of its existence.
Faux pas A social blunder, causing embarrassment or loss of reputation. Literally, a ‘false step‘.
Femme fatale A dangerously attractive woman.
Fleur de Lis The heraldic lily; a device supposed by some to have originally represented an iris, by others the top of a sceptre, of a battle-axe or other weapon.
Force majeure Irresistible force or overwhelming power.
Grand prix The premier events of several sports, especially the races in the Formula I motor racing championship. Literally, ‘grand prize‘.
Haute couture Trend-setting high fashion. Also, the collective name for the leading dressmakers and designers.
Haute cuisine High class cooking. Literally, ‘upper kitchen‘.
Hors d’oeuvres An extra dish served as a relish to whet the appetite, normally at the start of a meal.
Je ne sais quoi An indescribable or inexpressible something. Literally, ‘I know not what’.
Joie de vivre A feeling of healthy enjoyment of life; exuberance, high spirits.
Laisser-faire The principle that government should not interfere with the action of individuals. Also, more generally, a policy of indulgence towards the actions of others. Literally, ‘let (people) do (as they think best)‘.
L’esprit de l’escalier This isn’t actually widely adopted into English. I include it here in the hope that it might become so. It means – thinking of a suitable retort of remark after the opportunity to make it has passed. Literally, ‘the wit of the staircase’.
Mal de mer Seasickness.
Mardi gras The last day of the Carnival or pre-Lenten season. Literally, ‘Fat Tuesday‘, called Shrove Tuesday in the UK.
Ménage à trois A living arrangement comprising three people in a sexual relationship.
Merci beaucoup Thank you very much.
N’est-ce pas? Is it not so?
Noblesse oblige The responsibility conferred by rank. Literally, ‘noble rank entails responsibility‘.
Nom de guerre A name assumed by individuals engaged in a military enterprise or espionage, usually in order to conceal their true identity. Literally, ‘war name’.
Nom de plume An assumed name under which a person writes or publishes. Literally, ‘pen name‘.
Par excellence Pre-eminently supreme – above all others.
Pas de deux Impossible to avoid the corny ‘father of twins‘ joke here. The real meaning is a dance (typically a ballet), and in extended use a partnership, between two people.
Pièce de résistance The best part or feature of something, especially of a meal.
Pied-à-terre A second home, typically an apartment in the city.
Prêt-à-porter Ready-to-wear clothing.
Pot-pourri A mixture of dried petals of different flowers mixed with spices, kept in a jar for its perfume. Also, a stew made from a variety of meats cooked together. By extension, any collection of miscellaneous items.
Quelle horreur What a horrible thing. This is frequently use sardonically, when the ‘horror‘ is trivial.
Qu’est-ce que c’est? What is this?
Raison d’être The thing that is central to our existence. Literally, ‘reason for being‘.
Sacré bleu This general mild exclamation of shock is the archetypal French phrase, as viewed by the English. No portrayal of a stage Frenchman in an English farce could be complete without a character in a beret and striped jumper, shrugging his shoulders and muttering ‘Sacré bleu!’. Literally, ‘holy blue‘, which refers to the colour associated with the Virgin Mary.
Sang-froid Coolness, indifference. Literally, ‘cold blood‘.
Savoir-faire Social grace; means know-how in French.
S’il vous plaît Please. Literally, ‘if it pleases you‘.
Soupe du jour Soup of the day‘ – the soup offered by a restaurant that day.
Table d’hôte A full-course meal offering a limited number of choices and served at a fixed price in a restaurant or hotel.
Tête-à-tête A private meeting between two people. Literally, ‘head-to-head‘.
Tout de suite At once.
Tour de force A masterly stroke or feat of strength or skill. Literally, ‘feat of strength‘.
Trompe l’œil An art technique involving high levels of realism in order to create the illusion that the depicted objects are real rather than paintings. Literally, ‘trick the eye‘.
Vis-à-vis In a position facing another. Literally ‘face to face’. Often now used in the sense of ‘in relation to’.
Vive la différence. Long live the difference (between male and female).
Zut alors A general exclamation. Like Sacré bleu, this is more likely to be spoken by pretend Frenchmen than by real ones.

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