Ten Everyday Words You Never Knew Derived From French
Whether it’s Nelson and Napoleon, London and Paris, or fish and chips and frogs’ legs, for as long as there’s been a channel between us, Britain and France have found something to squabble over. Yet, at the end of the day, it seems that there is often more that unites us than divides us. Today, we look at how our language proves just that, as we explore some English words you never knew originated from French.
Words with a French origin
Once upon a time, dentists in Britain were known as ‘operators for the teeth’, which I think we can all agree sounds terrifying! Since then, thankfully, we’ve turned to the French for an alternative. There we found the title of dentiste, which, what with French being such an eloquent and romantic language, literally translates as “toother”.
Whether it’s bacon butties or a croque monsieur, you’ve got to eat it somewhere, and where better than a “restorer”, or, more specifically, a place “to restore with food”.
We get an astonishing number of military terms from the French, including this one, which originates from camouflet or “a whiff of smoke in the face”.
Surprisingly, also a French military term, this time coming from King Henry IV of France, who rode into battle shouting ‘Ralliez-vous à mon panache blanc!’ or “Follow my white plume!”, referring to the white feather he wore on his helmet. Presumably, its English meaning derives from the fact he actually managed to win a few battles!
5. Carte blanche
We can’t talk French military terms without this one really, can we? Literally translating as “white card”, the term now refers to a person who has permission to do whatever they choose without any repercussions, and relates back to the white flag used to declare surrender during battle. Rather controversially though, its origin may have actually stemmed from King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, as he is believed to have issued white cards with only his signature on them to those people who helped him escape persecution at the end of the English Civil War. By writing any action on these cards, the holder would be legally allowed to undertake that action regardless of its consequences, as it was written above a royal signature.
In Latin, the term ambulant meant “walking”, but the word first became attributed to the medical services in the 1800s, when the French co-opted it for hôpital ambulant, referring to the horse-drawn carriages used to help those in need of aid out in the field. The English term stems from this and literally translates as “walking hospital”.
7. Maitre d’
One of the least surprising French words in the English language, this originates from the long-form maître d’hôtel, simply meaning “master of the house”. Interestingly, the role this person carries out differs depending on the establishment. Whilst in Britain we associate the Maitre d’ with being the senior waiter in an often upmarket restaurant who greets guests and assumes a more hands-off, managerial role, in less respected establishments the Maitre d’ may simply be the owner of the restaurant, akin to Monsieur Thenardier in Les Miserables.
Another word with mixed French and English origin, this one stems from the Middle French word desbacler, or “to unbar”, but transformed into debacle in the 17th Century when it was used figuratively to mean “disaster”. The English later co-opted its more literal meaning of “the breaking up of ice as a consequence of rising water” to explain the geological forming of land after the Ice Age.
Today, we associate this with an attempt to communicate with spirits, but its original French meaning was completely devoid of ghostly apparitions, arose from the Old French for “to sit”, and, even today, simply means “session”. Indeed, it is quite common for the term to be used in everyday use; the phrase une séance de cinéma, for example, simply refers to the watching of a film. The exact origin of its English meaning is unknown, but sometime in the 19th Century it came to refer to a meeting of people attempting to seek communication with the afterlife.
Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, the term for one of the most British of pastimes, queuing, actually comes from the French word for “tail”, as in an animal’s tail. In the 1500s, it began to be used by the English to metaphorically refer to a line of dancers, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that its use was extended to refer to a line of people.