Cool Words We Got from the French

It has been two months since I posted Cool Words We Got from the Germans and the time has come for the second installment. Many of you know that I am studying French for the upcoming U.N. editors’ exam, donc French is the next target in our venture to find cool words in English, this time with etymologies you can hang your béret on.

French stereotypes aside, the veracity of the affair is that we have inherited, commandeered and purloined copious vocables from René and Renée. You see my point, non ?

I could get into the history of why we have so many words that are derived either from French directly or from Latin via French, but instead I have embedded this quick video to do the job for me. It is part II of a X part series that illustrates the history of English in a funny, hand-waving way.

So after the Normans came in, they deposited loads of words. Words we still use in their original form like abattoir—though Vonnegut’s hypothetical Abattoir-Five does not have the same ring to it—and words we use not in the way the French originally thought them up, like Rendezvous. In the latter case we have taken the second person plural or formal imperative, rendez-vous meaning “present yourself” in this sense and given it the normal, awkward, English treatment. We now own rendezvous as a noun or verb coming to mean meeting place or to meet someone.

Their are literally thousands of such examples; if you are so inclined I invite you to visit the Wikipedia page regarding the subject and there you will find more French-based words in English than you can shake a stick at. I have distilled the list into a few of my favorites. (I will try to limit the gastronomical references like beignet, Boeuf Bourgignon, Béarnaise, bouillabaisse, bourbon and beurre blanc.) (Also, those that start with B.)

  • Champerty – This is a legal term describing the illegal act of financing a suit that you have no interest in besides the cut if the suit wins. Basically, you can’t use a lawsuit as an investment opportunity. From the French meaning to “part” the “field”.
  • Cuckold – The husband of a cheating wife. From the French, Cucu (Cuckoo) and the bird’s habit of laying its egg in another birds nest.
  • Demur – To raise doubts or show reluctance. From the French meaning to “delay away”.
  • Denouement– The end, conclusion or resolution of a play, book, movie or event. From the French meaning to “unknot”.
  • Ennui – Boredom. Listlessness derived from the lack of passion or excitement. From Latin via French, originally meaning “it is hateful to me” (mihi in odio est).
  • Insouciance – Indifference, lack of concern. Literally, “not” plus “worrying”.
  • Propinquity – Being close to somebody or something. Close kinship. From Latin via French from the word meaning “near”.

These are but seven of a myriad words that we have thanks to French. And even though it is no longer the Lingua Franca, frankly, it would be unjust not to recognize the influence the Normans had way back when.

Your favorite words in English that we owe to French? Statistically speaking, if you just put one word down in the comments’ section, there is about a 30% chance it came from French in one way or another. 🙂

[Definitions adapted from the New Oxford American Dictionary]

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