Reste Vrai Français

Reste vrai Français means “remains real French,” here referring to unmistakably French words borrowed by English but still intact to the letter. Two prime specimens: prime and specimen. Additional examples of the countless words most of us would never know are pure French include combat, intelligence, machine, portraitsecret, and wagon.

Writers of English eventually stripped the words of their diacritical marks,* though some survived for one reason or another. Take the word cliché, which would be pronounced kleesh sans its accent aigu (aigu = acute) .That being said, a full accounting of French borrowings whose spellings stayed the same (sans and accent included) would run on for miles – which explains why the following list is confined to selected terms of two or more words. Read on, mes amis.

  • aide-de-camp (aid duh camp) A military officer who assists another high-ranking officer. “In 1960 the future general Norman Schwarzkopf was stationed in Germany, where he served as aide-de-camp to the commanding general.”
  • art deco (art deh-KOH) A popular design style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by bold outlines and geometric or zigzag forms.  “Rockefeller Center, the centerpiece of Midtown Manhattan, is a triumph of art deco design.”
  • avant-garde (ah-vahnt gard) Experimental ideas, especially in the arts, or the originators of such ideas. “Among the Russian avant-garde painters of the early 20th century were  Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and Malevich.”
  • bon vivant (bawn vee-VAWNT) A person who relishes fine food and drink and the social whirl. “Julian is a bon vivant who never met a cocktail party, soiree, banquet, fete, ball, or orgy he didn’t like.”
  • bric-a-brac (brick-uh-brack) A collection of curios of ornamental or sentimental value. “The growing collection of bric-a-brac on Susie’s mantelpiece began to look like little more than clutter.”
  • carte blanche (cart BLAHNCHE; translates as “blank document.”) Permission to do something in any way one chooses, without interference. “The Carringtons give carte blanche to Jean Paul, the chef they hire for their New Year’s Eve galas.”
  • c’est la vie  (say la vee) That’s life – the French equivalent of the Spanish Que será, será. “Looks like I may have to enroll in Lowbrough U now that I know the Ivies don’t want me — but hey: c’est la vie.”
  • cinema verité  (cinema ver-ih-TAY; “truth cinema”) French-born documentary genre known for its unsparing depiction of real life.  “Fredierck Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is a wrenching cinema verité tour of a hospital for the criminally insane.”
  • coup de grace** (koo duh GRAHSS) A lethal blow delivered as an act of mercy; figuratively, a final or decisive act. “The chairman’s firing of the perennially miserable Perkins was seen as a welcome coup de grace.”
  • cul-de-sac (cull duh sack) A street or passage closed at one end; figuratively, a course of action leading nowhere. “Much to their frustration, many climate change activists in red states found themselves in a political cul-de-sac.”
  • deja vu (DAYZJ-ah voo; translates as “already seen.”) Perceiving a new situation as one perceived before. “When I click on cable news I get deja vu, given their obsession with covering hot stories every six ways from Sunday.”
  • de rigueur  (duh-ree-GURR). An idea, action, or choice thought of as a must. “In the Seventies, avocado-colored refrigerators and ranges were de rigueur in millions of suburban homes.”
  • double entendre (doob-luh ahn-TAHND-re, with the ending –re barely pronounced.) A word or expression understandable in two ways, one with sexual overtones. “A nudist colony is the ideal place for men and women to go and air their differences.”
  • enfant terrible (ahn-fahnt teh-REEB-luh,with the final syllable barely voiced.) A young go-getter who does things in ways shockingly different from the norm. “When Spike Jonze did his thing, he shook up the film world as its latest enfant terrible.”
  • en masse (ahn mass). All together; in a body or as a whole. “As the rhapsodic music washed over the crowd, the concertgoers lifted their arms en masse and began to sway.”
  • esprit de corps (ess-PREE duh-core) Enthusiastic devotion to a group one belongs to. “When Skip joined Wind Farmers for World Peace he had the kind of esprit de corps that inspired us all to work harder.”
  • fait accompli  (fate ah-cohm-PLEE) Something already accomplished or done, usually irreversibly. “I pleaded with Lucinda to take me back, but she made it clear our breakup was a fait accompli.”
  • femme fatale  (fem fah-TAL; in French, fum fuh-TAL) A comely, seductive woman who ultimately brings disaster to  any man with whom she becomes involved. “In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest may rank as the scariest femme fatale in film.”
  • fin de siècle (fan duh see-ECK-luh, with the n of fin barely pronounced.) Noun and adjective applied to the end of a century (especially the nineteenth), connoting a period of degeneration concurrent with new life in art, culture, and society. “The book is a fin-de-siecle Catcher in the Rye, albeit with a clever Millennials-friendly slant.”
  • idée fixe  (ee-day feex) An idea that preoccupies the mind to an unusual degree, especially for a long period. “Dorothy’s idèe fixe was that daughter Hayleigh’s beauty pageant win was the first step toward Hollywood stardom.”
  • joie de vivre (zzhwah duh veev-ruh, with the ruh at the end  barely pronounced.) Unbridled enjoyment of life “You can say this about my friend Meredith: Her joie de vivre was positively contagious.”
  • laissez-faire (less-ay fair) An economic policy allowing businesses to operate without government interference; in a larger sense, freedom of choice and action. “When it comes to public pot-smoking, Woody has a laissez-faire attitude.”
  • ménage à trois (may-NAHNJ ah twah) A threesome of the sexual sort. Buck and Sally had an itch for a ménage à trois, and their friend Jaqueline was more than happy to scratch it.”
  • noblesse oblige (no-bless oh-BLEEGE) The idea that those of high rank or wealth should act with personal or monetary generosity toward  those less privileged.  “Captain Bloodworthy’s lineage brought with it a sense of noblesse oblige.”
  • nom de plume (nohm duh PLOOM) Pen name. “Mississippi steamboat culture and lingo inspired Missouri-born Samuel Langhorne Clemens to choose Mark Twain as his  nom de plume.”
  • objet d’art (OHB-zjay dahr) An object of both artistic and monetary value. “The latest tabletop objet d’art my neighbor Elizabeth acquired was a crystal obelisk from Tiffany’s.”
  • par excellence  (par ex-cel-AHNCE) The best of a kind; preeminent. “Deborah and Ray seem to be all thumbs with anything electronic, but they are home decorators par excellence.”
  • pièce de résistance (pee-ess duh RAY-zis-TAHNCE) Originally applied to the most excellent dish of a meal but now used more broadly. “The novel was riveting from the start, but the pièce de résistance was the twist within a twist at the end.”
  • raison d’etre (RAY-zohn det-ruh, with the n of raison and the –re of d’etre barely pronounced.) Reason or justification for existence. “Sometimes I think Delli’s raison d’etre is to trash the current occupant the White House.”
  • risqué (rihs-KAY) Sexually suggestive; off-color. “When Trey came upon RIBF’s Cool Place Names menu he got a kick out of a Newfoundland town named Dildo, yet his girlfriend Pam found the post too risqué.”
  • roman à clef  (roh-MAHN ah clay; translates “novel with a key.”) A novel disguising real people or events therein.“Don’t you think Tom Wolfe’s potboiler set in Atlanta was something of a roman à clef?”
  • savoir-faire (sav-wah fair) A polished assurance in social situations; translates as “know-how.”) “Edward had the savoir-faire to charm the socks off Jeanette while paying no mind Marguerite’s insults.”
  • tête-à-tête A (tett-ah-tett; translates as “head-to-head.”) A private converstion between two people. “Just so you know, Dan and I had a little tête-a-tête before taking our concerns to Mr. Bigbritches.”

 *Among the rare exceptions are fin de siècle, menage à trois, and tête-à-tête, often seen with their marks intact. As a devotee of the language of La Belle France, I confess to using the appropriate diacritical marks when writing a French word or phrase.

 **See also Coup de What?

 

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