Last Updated on 8th July 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
Whether you’re thinking about learning French or will simply be visiting a country which speaks French, then you may well be surprised to discover that there are already a number of English words used in French (and I’m sure that some of them are guaranteed to shock you)!
- A brief history of English and French swapping words
- ‘Anglicismes’ in French
- English Words Used in French
- False friends in French
A brief history of English and French swapping words
Of course, from café to ballet to clique, there’s no shortage of French words used in everyday English vocabulary! You see, English and French have been swapping words for centuries, and perhaps most famously during the time of William the Conqueror.
During the 11th-Century, following the Norman Conquest, the wealthiest in Britain were the French elite, who were in turn served by the English. This led to the words ‘beef’ ‘pork,’ and ‘mutton’ being commonly used to distinguish the meat from the animal as opposed to the living animal.
If you have any knowledge of French, then you’ll know that the English words for meat are very similar to those used in French. That’s because when the Normans arrived in England, they were the ones consuming the meat, as opposed to the English who would have farmed the animals.
As such, the word for pig meat in English became pork (from the French porc), the word for cow meat became beef (from the French boeuf), the word for sheep meat became mouton, later mutton (from the French word ‘mouton’), and the list carries on.
‘Anglicismes’ in French
As you may well have gathered by now, English and French have been swapping words back and forth for many centuries. This is to an extent that when an English word appears in French, it’s noted to be an ‘anglicisme’.
So common is the swapping of words between the languages (and even French words used in English) that it’s thought that up to 45% of English vocabulary originates from French in some form or another! Though there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of anglicismes in French, listed below are some of the most common.
It’s also worth noting that loanwords can be used in a variety of contexts when brought into another language. Whereas sometimes the meaning remains exactly as it was in the original language, other times the meaning and context of the word changes entirely, or is at the very least pronounced with a French accent!
English Words Used in French
Despite being one of the main perfume producers in the world, France and the French language don’t have a word for Aftershave and instead use the English version of the word.
Babysitter has exactly the same word in French and English.
‘Les baskets’ in French should be pronounced with a French accent and does not refer to a basket for holding things or a picnic basket, even though picnics are very popular in France. Instead, ‘baskets’ refer to trainers.
One of those English words which has been imported into French and has been ‘Frenchified’ into a verb of its own is that of ‘to book’. The word means the same in French as in English (i.e. as in a reservation) but can be conjugated the same way as a usual French verb. For example, ‘I booked’ would literally be ‘j’ai booké’.
Of course, a rather newer addition to the French lexicon is ‘le Brexit’. The UK’s scheduled departure from the EU gained its nickname as a portmanteau of ‘British’ and ‘Exit’ and the same word is simply used in French. However, French speakers should note that no article of ‘the’ is needed when speaking about Brexit in English, as opposed to in French when it’s referred to as ‘le’ Brexit.
As mentioned, there are a number of words which have been adopted from English into French but have taken on entirely new meanings altogether. ‘Le brushing’ is one such word. As opposed to brushing hair, ‘le brushing’ actually means a blow-dry.
The same in both languages, ‘cool’ simply means ‘cool’ (though does not refer to the chilled version of the word when speaking in French).
Somewhat of a false friend, when the English word ‘dressing’ is used in French, it takes on an entirely new meaning altogether. You see, instead of literally ‘to dress,’ ‘un dressing’ actually means a walk in closet.
Yet another word which derives from English but is used in an entirely different way in French is that of ‘le Drive’. As opposed to the actual act of driving, ‘le drive’ refers to drive-thru takeaways, which are becoming more and more popular in France.
This is one of those cases where you should be sure not to confuse the original English word (especially considering that it doesn’t technically exist) with the new French meaning! You see, while ‘un jogging’ is used in French, it is solely used to denote a type of tracksuit clothing piece. If you’d like to talk about going for a jog, you would say ‘un footing’.
Indeed, if you’ve ever strolled through the streets of Paris for any length of time, then you’ll no doubt have spied the many signs outside of bars and cafés that denote the ‘happy hour’ time. Happy Hour means the same in both English and French, though I have noticed that ‘Happy Hour’ in France often tends to last more than an hour!
Yet another word which has nothing to do with its English equivalent is ‘un lifting’. Rather than being related to removals or frequenting the gym, ‘un lifting’ is actually used with regards to plastic surgery, such as having a facelift.
One French word which has quite literally nothing to do with its previous status as a word in use in English is one which often confuses visitors to French-speaking countries. Le pressing is actually the dry cleaners!
If you recall the earlier part of this text, it said that sometimes an English word is used in French, but is pronounced with a French accent. ‘Week-end’ is one of those words. For example, if you do not use a French accent when saying ‘week-end,’ then you might not be understood. Please note that the correct spelling of ‘week-end’ in both French and English is indeed the hyphenated version of the word.
False friends in French
What’s worse than an unreliable friend? A false friend. That’s what. And the French language is full of them. Aside from the difficult grammar and the 100 exceptions to every rule, the thing that probably trips me up the most are all the false friends (faux amis) floating around. Here are some particularly tricky words that seem like they have a direct translation from English into French but don’t:
No one– not to be confused with person. Why does the word for nobody look like the word ‘person’?
Sensitive– not to be confused with sensible. No; that person is not sensible, they are sensitive! The adjective for the english word ‘sensible’ in French is ‘sage’.
Nickname– not to be confused with surname. Oh my goodness, this one catches me out every single time!
Bookshop– not to be confused with library. Walking down the streets of Paris in my first week, I turned to my friend and said ‘gosh, there are a lot of places to borrow books around here aren’t there?’ Her reply was ‘oh dear, you’re really being serious, aren’t you?’ Oops.
Grape– not to be confused with raisin. I really dislike this one. I absolutely love grapes and hate raisins…
To kiss– not to be confused with embrace. Although this verb can also mean ‘to embrace’, more often than not, it is used in the context of ‘kiss’. This one has caught me out on many an occasion.
To hurt/ injure– not to be confused with ‘to bless’. These words have totally opposite meanings and, as such, it’s important not to muddle them up!
Big/ large– not to be confused with important. I guess big things can also be important though…
Men’s underwear– not to be confused with ‘to slip’. Better to be safe than sorry; the verb ‘to slip’ in French is actually ‘glisser’.
Passer un examen
Taken an exam– not to be confused with ‘pass an exam’. Considering that ’tis the season to take exams, what better way to end than on an exam note! Incidentally ‘to pass an exam’ in French is ‘réussir un examen’.