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How Many French Words Populate the English Language?

By Sophia, published on 15/03/2018 Blog > Languages > French > Discover the Wealth of French Words Used in English

For all the claims that English is the de facto Lingua Franca of the civilised world – and other parts are catching up fast, we might want to hold our elation in check.

Yes, it is wonderful that nearly every classroom in every nation of the globe contains students who are learning English.

It is equally great that we, native speakers of the English language, could theoretically travel to just about any corner of the world and stand a good chance of being understood, all without having to learn a second language.

Before becoming overwhelmed by any sense of seniority at our language being the world’s language, we have to examine our mother tongue’s roots.

Linguists all assert, with varying degrees of firmness: English is a Germanic language.

That means that the basis of our grammar and vocabulary lies with ancient Teutonic civilisations.

The theory passes the litmus test. Our ancestors did come, at least in part, from Jutland; a decidedly Germanic province.

Have you ever wondered why the K in words such as knee and knife is silent?

A bit of investigation reveals that those words come to us from the German language, where words with that letter combination are pronounced with the K.

If we accept that premise – and, by all accounts, we do!, how can we justify that claim when nearly a third of English vocabulary is derived from the French language?

Especially when, according to some reports, there are more French words used in daily English than German ones?

Let’s find out how much French you already know. Together we will discover just how much la langue française has influenced English!

We can start with the name England, derived from French Angleterre: literally, Angles Land.

What a fitting name seeing as the Angles, as well as the Jutes, helped to settle and populate our country!

You have surely teased your palate with amuse bouches! Amuse bouche, what we call nibbles, is a common idiom borrowed from the French language Source: Wikipedia Credit: Docteur Cosmos

French Idioms Commonly Used in English

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the words in that phrase.

The popular idiom, at the drop of a hat, may be confusing to native French speakers because, after all: how many hats must be dropped at a precise moment in order to cause a sudden action to occur?

The same holds true for this phrase, that has similar meaning: every time I turn around… to which any francophone may respond: stop turning around, then!

Idiomatic phrases are generally considered culture- or language-specific. They tend to lose the flavour of their meaning when translated into other languages.

The phrase not on my watch, for example, translates into French as not on my wristwatch.

Such a colloquial expression might lead a francophone to quiz you about a spill onto a pricey timepiece being imminent!

French idioms may be the exception to the postulate that catchphrases are endemic to a specific language and culture.

Have you ever had a deja vu experience? Have you ever eaten an amuse-bouche; a teaser to a sumptuous meal? Perhaps you live in a cul-de-sac?

You guessed it: those are all French expressions, commonly used by English speakers.

Here are a few more French phrases you are most likely familiar with:

  • Avant-guarde: something or someone that is cutting edge.

    • Le Corbusier’s designs were certainly avant-guarde!

  • Le mot juste: the precise word to describe a condition or situation.

    • Refined is le mot juste to describe Meghan Markle

  • Cherchez la femme: the idea that, when a man behaves out of character, a woman must be at fault

    • In today’s gender politics, it might not be a good idea to use this phrase!

  • Faux pas: literal translation is false step, meaning a violation of social mores

    • Turning your back to The Queen is a grave faux pas!

The list of idiomatic French expressions used in English is so long that it merits its own webpage!

And so many basic French words populate our vernacular! Even if you don’t (yet) speak French, it’s a good bet you know most of these words.

With Fashion Week just past, you may have recently heard the terms haute couture and pret a porter – high fashion and ready to wear, respectively.

Calling all foodies!

And entire lexicon of French words fill our cookbooks, from soufflé to consommé. Even our beloved courgettes get their name from the French!

You will note that we use the French pronunciation of such words without changing the end to fit English spelling rules.

Wouldn’t soufflay, consommay and macramay be much easier to read, all while keeping the pronunciation we’ve claimed as our own?

Aren't we glad that Louis Pasteur understood the meaning of heating milk? Many thanks to the native French inventor Louis Pasteur for giving us safe milk! Source: Pixabay Credit: Couleur

Mainstream English words from French People

I would like a milk bath!” proclaimed the nouveau riche matron. “Would that be pasteurised?” inquired her attendant. “No, just to my chin will be suitable.”

Pasteurised milk is the only accepted standard for consumable dairy products. In fact, its very niveau means that we no longer include the adjective pasteurised when we say milk.

Still, it is printed on every single milk bottle label, isn’t it?

Louis Pasteur, the Frenchman who invented the technique, is forever immortalised by the process that bears his name.

Other famous French people who gave their name to discoveries include Louis Braille, the Curies, Blaise Pascal, and Emile Baudot – definer of the baud rate, so vital to our digital world.

Common Words Coined by the French

Do you like to go to the cinema, or would you rather watch television?

The names of both those popular forms of entertainment come from French vocabulary.

Others words to describe ubiquitous concepts include: parachute, stethoscope, photography and stratosphere.

Many words that we consider scientific jargon came from French speaking inventors and discoverers.

In most cases, translations – or establishment of wholly English words for those novelties was unnecessary, as the original words from French encompassed the concept well, and were easy to pronounce.

The fact that the word television has morphed into telly only means that the English abbreviation mirrors the French slang term: télé.

To be sure, both the formal and informal French word is subject to adaptation as an English word.

So much so that they too have their own compilation on the Internet!

Military, diplomacy, engineering and the arts: beaucoup words and phrases have made the jump from French to English, with virtually no difference in how they are spelled!

Tracing Word Etymology

In these fast, digital times, when we barely have a chance to inhale a bacon sarny before turning to the next task, having time to read anything is a veritable luxury.

Does that mean that your schedule won’t let you enjoy any benefits of learning French?

If you do have time to relax with a good book – or even your favourite periodical, you may consider compiling a list of words that pique your curiosity.

Did you know that the word chair – something to sit on, is not a direct equivalent of the French word, which is spelled the same way?

That word, with the same spelling and nearly the same pronunciation, translates to flesh in French!

Our generic term for a place to sit did come from the French language, albeit through a more circuitous route.

Dictionaries contain a wealth of information; so much so that, perhaps, there is no room to relate any word’s origins.

Enter the etymology dictionary!

It will not translate any words in French – or any words in English, for that matter! However, it will trace the history of any given word to its roots, and tell you of the circumstances surrounding its inception.

If you have always wanted to learn French, and to know more about French words and phrases, the etymology dictionary is the page for you!

What about being so busy that you barely have time to read a book, let alone take French classes?

Ponder this: our daily lives may consume all of our time, energy and resources, but our minds are capable of boundless feats.

While we are constrained by our social obligations, nothing says our minds can’t take flight!

One of the best ways to appreciate French culture is to discover the numerous inroads it has made into the language we speak every day.

In taking a French course London or in Leeds, we will also gain a deeper appreciation for our modern English!

Discover online French-English dictionaries You too will thrill at discovering the online etymology dictionary! Source: Pixabay Credit: JeShoots

French in Standard English

Some of our most common words originated in France.

Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that French is a romance language, with its roots in Latin.

Doesn’t that beg the question of the most common English words actually originating from that ancient tongue?

Why should you study French?

Wouldn’t speaking French be easy, seeing as we English speaking people use so much French in our conversation?

Few countries guard their linguistic heritage as closely as France, and defend it so ardently from foreign language incursion – such as the growing worldwide influence of English.

But then, grammar aside: is spoken French really that different from spoken English?

Before your next holiday in France – your next immersion experience, why not find out how long it will take you to learn French?

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