Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

The influence of French on English • Blonde • Brunette • Bachelor • Fiancé • Cuisine • Menu • Restaurant • Avant-garde • Laissez-faire • Entrepreneur • Hotel • Souvenir • Bon voyage

You might have noticed that in some recent newsletters I’ve been discussing the various influences on the English language. I started with William Shakespeare and the Bible. I’ve decided to turn this into a short series with two more installments. Today, I’ll cover the influence of French on English, and next week I’ll cover the influence of Latin and Greek.

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English is not entirely English

English got its start as a Germanic language in Europe. It made its way to the island of Great Britain when tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded about 1,500 years ago. Note that name “Angles”. That’s how we get “England” and “English”, even though the spelling is a little different.

Okay, fast forward 500 years to the year 1066. A king in Europe named William ruled an area called Normandy, which would later become part of France. William decided he wanted to be king of England, too, so he invaded and won. From then on he was known as William the Conqueror.

After William took over, the Norman language, which was an early form of French, became the official language of government, law, and so on. Conquerors imposing their language on people has happened many times in history, and this time was no different. French was a standard part of life in England for 300 years until the English kicked out the Normans and started using the English language more often.

You can kick out the conquerors, but not the language

As it turned out, kicking out the conquerors was easier than kicking out their language. Thousands of French words had become part of English. A few other features of English changed, too, but the biggest impact by far was on vocabulary. English continued to borrow words from French for centuries to come, and now, one estimate found that almost 30% of English words come from French!

In a moment, I’ll discuss some common words that have French origins. Not all of them date from William’s time. Some were adopted more recently. But I’m fairly sure that many English speakers don’t realize they are often using words with French origins in their daily lives.


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Hair color

To start off, what color is your hair? Is it kind of yellow? The word for that is blonde. Blonde can describe both women and men, but note that it’s often spelled with an “e” at the end when it’s a woman. Blonde is an adjective, but it can also be used as a noun. So, a yellow-haired person can be described as “a blonde”.

Now, if a woman’s hair is brown, then it is brunette, and she can be called “a brunette”. Normally this word is only used for women and not men.

Dating and Marriage

Before a man gets married, he is called a bachelor, which comes from Old French.

If a man agrees to get married to someone, then he becomes the fiancé of that person. If a woman agrees to get married, then she also becomes the fiancée of that person, but the spelling is different, with an extra “e” on the end.

If these people end up getting divorced - that is, ending their marriages - they both can be called a divorcé, but again, for a woman divorcée, there is an extra “e” at the end of the word.

Food and the arts

French has had an enormous impact on the vocabulary of food and the arts in English. In fact, sometimes food and cooking are called cuisine. Cuisine itself is a French word.

Most people probably realize cuisine is a French word, but menu - that is, the listing of foods on offer at a restaurant - is also French. The word restaurant is French originally, too!

Maybe at a restaurant you’ll choose to order the soup du jour. Du jour means “of the day”. In other words, it’s the soup they are offering that day. Maybe you’ll order some hors d'oeuvres. Hors d'oeuvres are little pieces of food offered before the main meal.

Hors d'oeuvres is an example of a particularly confusing part of French for English speakers - well, maybe at least for me. The spelling of hors d'oeuvres does not match English pronunciation very well. You just have to know how to pronounce it, regardless of the spelling.

Meanwhile, in the arts, you might have heard of some works being avant-garde. Literally this means “advance guard”, as in people who are far out in front of other people, exploring the battlefield. In the arts, avant-garde artists are creating new, challenging works that many people struggle to understand.

If you’re watching a performing art, like music, and you really like it, you might yell “Encore!” once it’s finished. “Encore” means “again”. You liked it so much, you want to hear more.

Economics and business

It’s highly likely that you’ve heard these next two words from the world of economics and business: laissez-faire and entrepreneur. Both are of French origin. Laissez-faire means “let do” or “let the people do what they want”. In economics, the idea is to let people conduct business as they wish, without a lot of government interference. “Entrepreneur”, meanwhile, is someone who starts a business.

Travel

Many French words are used to describe travel, as well. For example, it’s likely that you’ve stayed at a hotel before. That’s a word of French origin.

Perhaps while you’ve been on vacation, you have purchased a souvenir. A souvenir is a small object that helps you to remember your trip. (See the video for an example of one of my souvenirs.) In fact, “souvenir” is derived from the French words for “remembrance” or “memory”, which makes sense, I think.

Before you leave on a trip, family or friends might call out to you, “Bon voyage!” “Bon voyage” means “good trip”. People are wishing you well, but in French. I would guess most English speakers actually know this one is French, though.

Official titles

I have one last area to discuss in which French grammar has affected English words.

Some official titles rearrange the words from what we would expect in English. For example, many governments have an Attorney General. An attorney general is that government’s top lawyer. Many countries also have a Surgeon General. That is a top medical official.

Now, normally in English, the modifier comes before the noun. So you would expect the titles to be “General Attorney” and “General Surgeon”. But English has adopted a French style for these titles, putting the modifier after the noun.

The plural, by the way, still changes the noun, not the adjective. So, it’s correct to say “Attorneys General” and “Surgeons General”. We don’t say “Attorney Generals” and “Surgeon Generals”.

Want more?

Do you want more examples of French words that have influenced the English language? Check out this excellent list from ThoughtCo and this list, as well.


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Bill