French Phrases in English

Many French phrases are used in English, in both written and spoken English. Below are some of the more common phrases from French, with meanings, comments and contextual examples. Even if you don't plan to use French phrases in English, it's good to recognise them when you see or hear them.

French phrase meaning example or comment
à la carte (in a restaurant) on the menu, with a price for each dish [literally, "according to the (menu) card"] Jane ate à la carte and John had the buffet.
agent provocateur, agents provocateurs somebody (often a spy) who encourages other people to commit a crime so that they can be convicted [literally, "provocative agent"] The demonstrators discovered that two agents provocateurs had infiltrated their ranks.
aide-de-camp, aides-de-camp a military officer who acts as a confidential assistant to a senior officer The general's aide-de-camp spoke to the ambassador.
aide-mémoire, aides-mémoire something that helps the memory (e.g. a notebook) He carries a little black book as an aide-mémoire.
Au contraire! On the contrary! (exclamation, often humorous) Au contraire! I said she was beautiful, not ugly.
au fait having a good knowledge/understanding about something [literally, to the fact] For the exam you will need to be au fait with the irregular verbs.
au pair, au pairs a young foreign person, usually female, who helps in the house in exchange for accommodation She stayed in Rome for a year before university, working as an au pair for an American family.
Au revoir! Goodbye! [literally, "until the seeing again"] Au revoir! And thanks for coming.
Bon appétit! Enjoy the meal! [literally "good appetite"] Shall we eat? Bon appétit!
bon mot, bon mots witty remark He was always popular in interviews, famous for his bon mots.
bon vivant, bon vivants a person who enjoys the pleasures of life [literally, good liver]  
Bon voyage! Have a good trip! Bon voyage! And see you next year!
Ça ne fait rien. It doesn't matter. Don't worry. Ça ne fait rien.
café au lait, cafés au lait coffee with milk; white coffee He ordered two cafés au lait.
carte blanche complete freedom to choose the course of action you think best The manager gave his assistant carte blanche during his absence.
cause célèbre, causes célèbres a controversial issue attracting widespread public interest and debate [literally, famous case] People like to tweet about many causes célèbres on Twitter.
C'est la vie! That's life! Such is life! Well, I lost the election. But never mind. C'est la vie!
chargé d'affaires, chargés d'affaires diplomatic official (often temporarily taking the place of an ambassador) [literally, in charge of affairs]  
cinéma vérité a style of film-making that uses realistic, documentary-style photography and avoids artistic effect [literally, cinema truth]  
cordon bleu of the highest class/quality (especially of cooking) [literally, "blue ribbon"] That new luxury hotel is advertising for another cordon bleu chef.
cordon sanitaire, cordons sanitaires a line around an infected area to prevent anyone from leaving it and thus spreading the disease; a political or military buffer zone around a state or specific area  
coup d'état, coups d'état a sudden seizure of power from a government, invariably illegal and sometimes violent [literally, "blow of state"] Thailand has had many coups d'état over the last fifty years, most of them by the Army.
coup de grâce, coups de grâce a final action to kill a wounded person or animal; a final action or event that puts an end to a deteriorating situation  
crème de la crème the very best person or thing of a particular kind [literally, the cream of the cream] The crème de la crème of the film world gather each year at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival.
cri de coeur, cris de coeur a real cry of anguish; passionate appeal or complaint [literally, cry from the heart]  
cul-de-sac, culs-de-sac a road that is closed at one end; blind alley; a venture leading nowhere [literally, bottom of the sack] Don't go down this road. It's a cul-de-sac.
déjà vu a feeling of having seen or experienced the present situation before [literally, already seen] I had this tremendous feeling of déjà vu, as though I'd met her before.
de rigueur expected or required by etiquette or fashion It used to be de rigueur to have long hair if you played in a band.
double entendre, double entendres word or phrase that can have two meanings, one of which is usually vulgar or sexual [literally, double understanding] Many British comedy films rely heavily on double entendre and sexual innuendo.
en masse in a group; all together The government ministers resigned en masse.
en route on the way; during the course of a journey Mary lives between you and me. I can pick her up en route.
fait accompli something that has happened or been done before the people affected by it know about it, so that they have no choice but to accept it [literally, accomplished fact] The new budget was presented to the board of directors as a fait accompli.
faux pas an embarrassing remark or act in a social situation [literally, false step] What a faux pas! He asked her how her husband was, but he died 10 years ago.
femme fatale, femmes fatales a temptress; a highly seductive and attractive woman, especially one who brings disaster to any man involved with her [literally, fatal woman] Many rulers in history have been destroyed through their obsession with a femme fatale.
force majeure unforeseeable circumstances that prevent one fulfilling a contract [literally, greater force] In most contracts an earthquake is considered to be force majeure.
grand prix an important sporting event with a very large prize [literally, great prize]  
haute cuisine the cooking of high-quality food in the traditional French style [literally, high cooking]  
hors d'oeuvre a small, extra dish during a meal, usually served at the start as an appetizer [literally, outside the (main) work]  
je ne sais quoi a certain indescribable or inexpressible quality [literally, I know not what] People with the x-factor have a certain je ne said quoi that makes them irresistible.
joie de vivre a full and healthy enjoyment of life [literally, "joy of living"]  
laissez-faire a policy or attitude of letting things happen on their own without interfering [literally, "allow to do"]  
ménage à trois a sexual relationship involving three people [literally, "household of three"]  
Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much. Please don't thank me! It's me that should say "merci beaucoup" to you!
mot juste, mots justes exactly the right or appropriate word  
n'est-ce pas? is it not so? isn't it? It's freezing today, n'est-ce pas?
noblesse oblige the responsibility of privileged people to act in a generous and noble way towards less privileged people  
nom de plume, noms de plume a pen name; a name that some authors use instead of their real name [literally, "pen name"]  
nouveau riche people who have only recently gained wealth (and may be seen as showing off and lacking in taste) [literally, "new rich"]  
papier mâché a mixture of paper, flour and water that becomes hard when dry, and is used to make some sculptures [literally "mashed paper"]  
par excellence better than all others of the same kind; among the absolute best [literally, "by excellence"] He is an artist par excellence.
pièce de résistance the best feature of a creative work or meal  
pied-à-terre a small home, apartment or room kept for occasional use [literally, "foot to earth"]  
prêt-à-porter ready-to-wear; ready-to-wear designer clothes [literally "ready-to-wear"]  
Qu'est-ce que c'est? What is this?  
raison d'être the most important reason for the existence of someone or something [literally, "reason for being"]  
RSVP (at the end of a printed invitation) Please reply. [abbreviation of "Répondez S'il Vous Plaît" meaning literally, "Reply if it pleases you"] You are kindly invited to our Dinner Party on Saturday 19th February at 7pm. RSVP
sang-froid composure (especially in dangerous circumstances); coolness; indifference [literally, "cold blood"]  
savoir-faire knowledge of how to act or speak appropriately in social situations; social grace [literally, "know how to do"]  
s'il vous plaît please [literally, "if it pleases you"]  
tête-à-tête a private conversation between two people [literally, "head-to-head"] When you've got a moment I'd like to have a little tête-à-tête with you.
tout de suite at once; immediately [literally, "quite in sequence"]  
trompe l'œil a visual illusion [literally, "deceive the eye"]  
vis-à-vis in relation to; regarding; a face-to-face meeting [literally "face to face"] I dread my annual vis-à-vis with the MD.
Vive la différence! Expression of approval for difference between things, especially between men and women [literally, "Long live the difference!"]