Top Ten French Words you Might Think Come from English (but it’s the other way around)


If it sounds like it came from English, it isn’t necessarily so…

We live in an era where the influence of English is being felt in new words and expressions that are being used at a seemingly increasing rate in French. Some of these words are actually making a return journey to French however, having initially been adapted by the English during an earlier epoch. So for all you learners of the French language out there, here are some facts that will surely surprise you and with which you can impress people at parties:

1. Denim: There’s nothing quite so American as a pair of denim jeans. That’s true, except the origin of the word denim is 100% French. It’s a derivation of the term serge de Nîmes. The clue is in the last two words that mean “from Nimes”.

2. Zapper: If you look through TV listings in French magazines and newspapers (and now also on certain online sites), much repeated reference is made to this word. It sounds perfectly English or possibly American but the word zaper has been used in Normandy for centuries. It refers to the rapid movement of animals being bothered by flies. So zapping using your remote control to switch rapidly between channels isn’t some streetwise slang from the ‘hood, but pure agricultural Norman French.

Mmmmm... C'est bon, le bacon!

Mmmmm… C’est bon, le bacon!

3. Bacon: This one will cause gasps of disbelief but bacon is a word in Old French that was borrowed by the English at a time when they were still struggling to make edible food. It referred to a slice of salted fat, which is essentially what bacon is. The same French origin is also at the root of the Dutch word bak and the German word bache.

4. Tennis: It’s not too surprising to learn that both the game and the word originated in French – just to prove that the British don’t quite have the monopoly on inventing and/or organising all major sports. Before racquets arrived, it was known as the jeu de paume and was played using one’s hand – either bare or wearing a leather glove. At the moment when the server was about to smack the ball with his paw in pre-Revolutionary France, he shouted “Tenez!”, meaning “Here you go!” or “Catch this!” When the English started to play it, they mis-pronounced the word as “Tennis!” Fact.

5. Stress: This is actually a contraction of two words from Old French – namely destresse (which meant constraint, affliction or distress) and estrece (narrowness or oppression). Shortened to stress, it seemed to strike a chord with the English, who happily adapted the word as their own.

6. Challenge: This is an interesting one because many French purists will baulk at the use of the “English” word challenge over what they would consider the more French and more widely-used word défi. But once again, it’s an adopted English cousin of the Old French word chalonge; which referred to a contest in the realms of justice or with arms – a dispute or a disagreement, if you will.

7. Flirter: In case you’re not familiar with this word, it means “to flirt”. This is one that the French have adapted but it was so easy for them to do so because it had such familiar ring to it. Sure enough, it’s from the Old French verb fleureter, literally meaning “to flower”. So even back then, girls were suckers for flowers, it would seem.

8. Hobby: Where would a Briton be without his hobby? Is there anything quite so English as this word that the French seem to use because there is no other word for it? Hobby is short for hobby-horse, of course but that word came directly from the Old French word hobin, which basically meant “a little horse”.

9. Interview: This word has become far more popular than the more Gallic entretien but it’s another Norman word entrevue that gave rise to the English version. The Normans and English had a lot in common – mostly through fighting.

10. Toast: In French supermarkets, you’ll come across little sliced pans for those who like the Anglo-Saxon-looking “Toast” but in Old French, toster was the common verb used to mean “to roast” or “to grill”.

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