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French phrases hidden in English words

The origins of the English language

It’s often said English is a mongrel language. Forged in the heat of centuries of military clashes, cultural exchanges and global trade, it has resolutely endured and constantly developed.

And it’s no great surprise that our nearest neighbour has had perhaps the greatest impact on our mother tongue. Much of the recognisable English language today has its origins in French, with some estimates suggesting that as much as 30% has French roots. German and our Saxon ancestors has influenced English to a similar extent, with Latin being the grande dame of linguistic origins, filtering into all European languages.

1066 and all that

It was the Norman conquest of 1066 that opened the floodgates for Norman French to hop the Channel (though it’s worth remembering that the Normans were themselves descended from the conquering Vikings of a few centuries earlier). 

Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings
Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings

It became the language of the court and government, with French being the first language of kings until the late 1300s. While Latin was the preserve of the clergy, it was also used in formal government (in fact Magna Carta itself was, as the name suggests, written in Latin).  

The élite in this feudal society spoke French and lived in mansions. Being noble and with servants, they only had dealings with the meat that was served at their table: beef, mutton and pork – all words of French derivation. 

The ordinary people continued to speak English, and they lived in houses. Being smallholders and subsistence level peasants, they kept animals such as oxen, swine and sheep – all Old English words. The English common man did not expect speak like his master, any more than he expected to live like him.

The English boom

Gradually, Anglo-French rivalry increased, fuelled by war and an increasingly powerful merchant class. It was not until Chaucer’s time, around 1400, that English became the official language of England, though it was a distant echo of Old English.

By 1431, when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake as a heretic, the use of French in England was viewed extremely dimly and considered deeply unpatriotic. 

The Renaissance saw the beginning of Modern English, with Shakespeare a leading proponent. And the discovery of the Americas saw increased contact with global languages and further linguistic cross-fertilisation through both war and trade.

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1504 manuscript
Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1504 manuscript

A second wave of French émigrés arrived with the Protestant Huguenots in the 16th and 17th centuries, fleeing persecution. And more French arrived in the 18th century, mostly aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution. A little ‘roast beef’ was infinitely more appealing than Madame Guillotine.

The illumination of language

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own
- Goethe

The etymology and evolution of language can often shine a light on history and culture.  

There are examples of French and Old English words with the same meaning co-existing and surviving through the centuries. It is rarely a case of either one or the other. Take for instance the Old English child and the French ‘infant’.

Much British military terminology is deeply rooted in French: battalion, dragoon, arsenal, marine, cavalry, musketeer, platoon, corps, espionage, camouflage, lieutenant, corporal, colonel, admiral and many more. These words are not hidden so much as adapted directly from the French.

Even today, the Norman origins of the British monarchy (and the legacy of French being the language of royalty) can be seen still rippling through the centuries in terms like the Prince Regent, heir apparent or Princess Royal – all titles with the noun preceding the adjective, as in French.

What is abundantly clear is the important, vibrant and rich contribution French has made to the English language. It has provided historical context, dramatic colour and, very often, a certain je ne sais quoi. 

Words with French origins

Vinegar From the French word ‘vinaigre’, or ‘vin aigre’ meaning sour wine.

Denim From the French ‘denime’. Before Levis Strauss made his name in California producing tough work wear jeans for miners and frontiersmen in the Gold Rush, denim came from Nîmes, famed for textile production. It was ‘de Nimes’. 

Sabotage As industrialisation took off around Europe it was not universally popular with the masses. The ‘sabot’, or wooden clog favoured by French peasants, proved a handy item to chuck into machinery to bring it to a grinding halt.   

Dentist The French word for tooth is ‘dent’, so it doesn’t take a great linguistic leap from there.

Coupon Money saving coupons are everywhere, originally clipped from magazines and newspapers. ‘Couper’ is to cut in French.

Queue It’s well documented the English love a good queue. The word actually means tail in French.

Mortgage Under the terms of a mortgage, if a loan can’t be paid off, the lender gets the property. If the loan is paid off, the borrower gets the property. In either event, the pledge dies, the deal is over. The mortgage is effectively a death pledge, a ‘mort gage’.

War The word war, or ‘guerre’ in French, comes from ‘werre, the ancient Breton word for war.

Curfew An interesting word dating back to the Middle Ages when the evening bells called for villagers to extinguish, or cover, their fires at a certain time. Literally to ‘couvre feu’. The aim was to reduce risk of fire and late night insurrection and crime.

Mayday The universal call for help comes from the French ‘venez m’aider!’ Its helpful consonants have ensured its place in the global language.

Dandelion This common weed is familiar for its serrated, tooth-like leaves drawing comparison with lion’s teeth, or ‘dent de lion’.

Parachute From the French ‘para’ meaning protection against and ‘chute’ meaning fall.