15 French terms that English speakers might be misusing

Though they’re not quite portmanteau, these words and phrases that derive from the Gallic tongue still warrant some unpacking.

Talk about getting lost in translation.

This post lists words and phrases used in English that are derived from French but are no longer employed with the same idiomatic sense in French (if they ever were).

Each term is followed by the literal French translation, a brief definition, and a comment about its status in French and how the French language conveys the idiom.

1. au jus (“with juice”): a brothlike meat sauce (the phrase is often incorrectly treated on menus as “with au jus”)—obsolete in French except for the slang phrase être au jus (roughly, “be with juice”)

2. cause célèbre (“celebrated cause”): controversial or emotionally weighted issue—obsolete in French, but originally referred to a sensational or unusual legal decision or trial

3. demimonde (“half world”): fringe group or subculture, or prostitutes as a class—obsolete in French, thoughune demi-mondaine refers to a prostitute (in English, demimondaine is synonymous with “kept woman”)

4. double entendre (“double to hear”): a comment that can have a second, often provocative, connotation—faulty grammar in French, which uses à double sens (“double sense”)

5. en masse (“in a masse”): all together—in French, refers to a physical grouping, so when using that language, one would not refer to a chorus of voices as being en masse

6. encore (“again”): additional songs played after the scheduled end of a concert, or a call for such an extended performance—in French, “Une autre! (“Another!”)

7. en suite (“as a set”): usually refers to a bedroom and bathroom connected to each other—not used as such in French

8. esprit de l’escalier (“wit of the stairs”): a witty comment one thinks of only after the opportunity to share it has passed (when one is departing a social occasion)—nearly obsolete in French

9. in lieu (“in place of”): instead of—a partial translation; in French, au lieu

10. legerdemain (“light of hand”): deception in stage magic—not used in French

11. marquee (“awning”): sign above a venue announcing the featured entertainment—not used in French

12. passé (“past,” “passed,” or “faded”): unfashionable—in French, passé de mode (“way of the past”)

13. piéce de resistance (“a piece that resists”): the best, or the main dish or main item—in French, plat de résistance (“dish that resists”)

14. rouge (“red”): blusher, or red makeup—in French,fard à joues (though lipstick of any color is rouge à lèvres)

15. venue (“arrival”): location—not used as such in French

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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