Merci Beaucoup: Borrowing from the French

One of the great things about English is that we have no compunction about borrowing from anyone else. Our language is a hodge-podge of words from various regions. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, I’d like to thank the French for their contribution to the English language by highlighting some words we stole borrowed from them.

Biscuit – Originally taken from the French word “bescuit” meaning twice-baked. I guess a biscuit is twice-baked, somehow. But it isn’t, is it?

Butcher – Taken from the French word “bouchier” which literally means “slaughterer of goats.” The term is also applied to executioners and murderers – whether their victims are goat-like or not.

Cliché – Clicher is presumably the sound of a mold striking molten metal – part of the printing process. A cliché is thus the French word for stereotype, derived from printing jargon. That’s appropriate since writers are perhaps the ones most likely to use clichés.

Curfew – From the French word “coeverfu,” meaning “cover fire.” In medieval times, there was a practice of ringing a bell to signal the time to extinguish hearth fires and prepare for sleep. The signal was in hopes of preventing unintentional conflagrations. Now, it’s primarily a warning to teens to put out the smooching fire and head home.

Garage – Derived from the French verb “garer,” meaning to shelter. Garages were thus automobile stables, or shelters. Nowadays, however, many of us are simply sheltering the excess stuff that won’t fit in our house but we can’t seem to get rid of.

Parliament – From the French word “parlement.” The verb “parler” means to talk in French. (Remember “Parlais vous Francais?”) To this day, parliaments do a whole lot of talking. What else they do is a subject of debate.

Rapport – “Rapporter” in French meant to bring back (Re – back/again, porter – bring). By 1894, this somehow began to apply to a harmonious relationship. Maybe people had good relationships with their porters. I would definitely want to keep things harmonious with the guy who watches over my stuff.

Regret – From “Regreter,” meaning to weep or wail after. “Greter” is likely from the Frankish term for weeping or groaning. I know that every time I eat a calorie-heavy French meal, I experience a bit of regret there.

Résumé – “Resumer” is to sum up. A résumé is an effort to sum up your entire work history on about one page and still get an employer to think you can do it all. Good luck with that.

Sauté – Sauté in French literally means jumped or bounced. Apparently, that refers to how you toss that garlic around in the pan and let in bounce in the oil. I am not a cook, but I have mastered this cooking activity.

Tennis – “Tenetz” was called out by the server to the receiver, and it means “hold, receive, take!” Interestingly, “requette” means palm of the hand, which was the original way of hitting a tennis ball, and it eventually became racquet, that thing you hold in your hand instead. (Personal note: I got to watch Roger Federer play in a tournament in Houston some time ago. Great sport!)

Umpire – “Nonper” is broken down as not (“non”) + equal (“per”). A non-equal here was a third person brought in to arbitrate between two. In French, it became “noumper.” Then the “n” got dropped somewhere along the way. Yada, yada, yada…umpire. Personally, I would have guessed the word umpire meant something like “cockeyed” or “stubborn,” at least when my son is batting.

Unique – From the French “unique.” Actually in Latin, “unicus” means single, or solitary, one. Despite its common use as meaning special or remarkable, “unique” actually means one of a kind.

Le Freak – Okay, this isn’t a French or an English word exactly, but anyone growing up in my era knows what this is. Thank you, Chic, for this French-y tidbit. Here’s the music video (and it’s from a French TV show):

What other French words do you know of that we have happily added to our English dictionary? Do you like that English borrows from other languages?

Sources: WISC-Online; Etymologically Speaking;; Online Etymology Dictionary

13 thoughts on “Merci Beaucoup: Borrowing from the French

    1. Thanks, Patti. You probably know a lot about our language with all that we have borrowed from Latin. And with French, Spanish & Italian all emanating from that core language as well.

  1. Very interesting. I knew where beaucoup came from. I often hear people using it like this: She’s a real estate lawyer and makes ‘boo coo’ bucks.” ‘Boo coo’ is, of course, East Texan for beaucoup. I wonder if they even know it’s a French word.

    I love your word Wednesdays. I’d never think of this stuff, much less know where to look it up. 😀

    1. I hear that phrasing too, Catie! I’ve also heard it as “boo-coos” – as in, “There’s boo-coos of oil in the Texas ground.” Glad you stopped by.

  2. No, don’t butcher the goats! I love this stuff. I’ll try to remember some so I can pass it off as common knowledge in causal conversation.

  3. Poor goats. (I have to admit that I actually like cabrito, however – a Mexican dish of goat meat.) Thanks so much, Sara. By the way, I love the name of your blog – Stories & Sweet Potatoes. Both yummy.

  4. I took five years of French, and I didn’t know some of these were originally from that language! (Maybe I wasn’t paying attention in class LOL). My favorite French word we’ve appropriated is faux pas (a social oops). Also, just faux (fake). Another good one is gauche – which to us means socially clumsy, but the literal French meaning is “left” (the direction, not the remaining whatever). Fun post!

    1. Faux pas is a great one – which we just lifted right out of French. I took one year of French in high school, and I did remember that “gauche” means left but we use it differently indeed. The only other things I remember are “Je m’apelle Julie” and “la lumiere” (light). There’s also that Lady Marmalade song for a little French. Ha!

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