6 must-know foreign terms frequently used in English

These expressions are handy in specific situations. Understanding them is essential, whether you’re hearing, reading or employing them in your communications.

Foreign expressions represent an integral part of the English language (and of other languages).

Knowing the meaning and proper usage of the most prevalent foreign terms will help you understand passages that include them. You might also need or want to use those expressions in particular situations. (Avoid using them just to sound smart, though.)

Here are six foreign terms commonly used in English:

1. De facto

This Latin expression means “actual” (if used as an adjective) or “in practice” (if used as an adverb). In legal terms, de facto is commonly used in contrast to de jure, which means “by law.” Something, therefore, can emerge either de facto (by practice) or de jure (by law).

“And what of the plastic red bench, which has served as his de facto home for the last 15 years and must by now be a collector’s item?” (NY Times)

2. Vis-à-vis

The literal meaning of this French expression is “face to face” (used as an adverb). It is used more widely as a preposition though, meaning “compared with” or “in relation to.”

“It’s going to be a huge catalyst in moving the whole process forward and it really strengthens the U.S. position vis-a-vis our trading partners.” (Yahoo News)

3. Status quo

This famous Latin expression means “the current or existing state of affairs.” If something changes the status quo, it is alters the way things have been to that point.

“Bush believes that the status quo—the presence in a sovereign country of a militant group with missiles capable of hitting a U.S. ally—is unacceptable.” (Washington Post)

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4. Cul-de-sac

This term was originated in England by French-speaking aristocrats. Literally it means “bottom of a sack,” but generally it refers to a dead-end street, especially one with a rounded terminus for ease of turning around. Cul-de-sac can also be used metaphorically to express an impasse or to an action that leads nowhere.

“A cul-de-sac of poverty” (The Economist)

“But the code of omertà was in effect for two carloads of fans circling the cul-de-sac to have a look at the house.” (Reuters.com)

(Bonus word: The term omermeans a code of silence, often used by or in connection with the Mafia.)

5. Per se

This Latin expression means “by itself” or “intrinsically.”

“The mistake it made with the Xbox is that there is no game console market per se; there are PlayStation, GameCube, and Xbox markets.” (PCMag.com)

6. Ad hoc

Borrowed from the Latin, this can be used as an adjective, meaning “formed or created with a specific purpose,” or as an adverb, meaning “for the specific purpose or situation.”

“The World Bank’s board on Friday ordered an ad hoc group to discuss the fate of President Paul Wolfowitz.” (CNN)

A version of this article originally appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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