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Common French Words in English (That Leave French Confused)

Words. Sense. They don't make.
Words. Sense. They don’t make.

One of the things I missed the most when I first came to Canada was the ease of using my mother tongue—French, the one language I truly mastered. I was lucky, though, because Ottawa is probably one of the most bilingual cities in the country. So I devoured all the livres en français available at my local library and when I was done, I used to go on a hunt for second-hand French magazines. When I was desperate, I read French labels on products and watched French shows I would have never paid attention to in France (Thalassa, anyone?). Looking back, it’s no wonder I became a linguistic resource—I spent my time and energy absorbing North American English, finishing my university degree in Chinese studies and dreaming in French.

Of course, my ears perked up whenever I spotted a French word in a conversation or in an English environment. Finally, I had an edge!

Unfortunately, these “loan words” didn’t always make sense to me.

Much has been written about French’s questionable use of English—le parking, un jogging or des baskets don’t actually have the same meaning (or mean anything at all) in proper English. But as I discovered, English speakers also butcher French language.

Indeed, English is a wonderful and flexible language with many loanwords. For instance, you can start your day speaking “Italian” at Starbucks—“a grande espresso, please”—enjoy lox (Yiddish for “brined salmon”) on a bagel and cream cheese at lunch and relax in your Chinese feng shui living room (bonus for Swedish-sounding furniture!)

However, I’m not sure the following words would be understood by French speakers in the context they are often used…

À la mode

I remember the day I first saw this expression en français. I was sitting at Denny’s, stuffed after a US-style breakfast, yet considering dessert for research purpose since I was exploring North American gastronomy. Yes, a convenient excuse, I know. So I ordered an apple pie à la mode. I had half-expected my slice to be branded with Chanel’s double interlocking Cs because “à la mode” means “trendy” in French. But no, it just came covered with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I still don’t understand the connection between ice cream and fashion and in case you were wondering, I couldn’t finish dessert.

Proper French use: Cette nana est toujours à la mode! (“This girl always wear the latest in fashion!”). Or even Les vacances sont un sujet à la mode sur Twitter (“Holidays are a trending topic on Twitter”).

Entrée

In my early days of being Canadian, I had a completely nonsensical conversation with a waiter. There were three of us, so I said we would share an entrée then have one daily special each—what I assumed was the main course. The waiter was confused and warned us it was too much food. He was right: in North American English, an “entrée” is the main course but in France, the word refers to an appetizer. I’m still occasionally confused by that one.

Proper French use:La soupe est une bonne entrée.” (“Soupe is a good appetizer”).

Coup

“Did you hear about the coup in Turkey?” Feng asked me the other day. “The coup of what?” I joked, knowing he was referring to what is, in proper French, a “coup d’état”, i.e. an attempt to overthrow the government. “Coup” in French means “blow”, “coup d’état” is literally a “blow of state”. If you just say “coup” in French, it means “”shock”, “stroke” or it could be used in expressions like a “coup de tonnerre” (crash of thunder), “coup de vent” (wind gust), “coup de main” (“helping hand”), “coup de soleil” (“sunburn”), etc.

Proper French use:Je ne comprends rien à cette tentative de coup d’état“. (“I don’t get this attempted coup.”)

Maître d’

Again, what’s with not using the full word? The proper expression in French is “maître d’hôtel”, literally the “master of hotel”, i.e.  the person in charge of a restaurant.

Proper French use:Le maître d’hôtel est très poli.” (“The maitre d’ is very polite.”)

Petit/Petite

The way North Americans use the word “petit” or “petite” is baffling to me. “Petit” means “small” or “little” in French. It’s a versatile word but it implies something small. In Canada, I often see it in clothing stores where there is a “petite” aisle for short, slender women but I don’t find petite-size garments designed much differently. And in food service, “petit” something can also translate into a giant portion of whatever you ordered, much like something “XL” in France is never that big. I think the old world and the new world just have different expectations when it comes to assessing sizes (that sounded dirty, didn’t it!).

Chocolate croissant

I’m nitpicking over a tiny detail, but in France, there is no “chocolate croissant”. There is “le croissant”, the crescent-shaped buttery pastry, sometimes with two apricots (“croissant aux abricots”) sometimes filled with almonds (“croissant aux amandes”). And then there is the “pain au chocolat”, a buttery roll filled with two thin chocolate sticks. So in my mind, either it’s a croissant, either it’s a pain au chocolat but it can’t be both. It would be like if French were saying “un burger with sausage”—nope, it’s either a burger or a hot dog!

Oh, and while we are on the topic… stop ordering “French fries” in France. First, deep-fried potato sticks are one of Belgium’s culinary claims to fame. Second, fries are fries, no need to specific. Have you ever heard of Chinese fries, Mexican fries, etc? So, des frites, merci.

Finally, you’ll be happy to know that “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” is grammatically correct, although rarely used by French men in their flirting efforts. Eh oui, c’est la vie…

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