How French made its mark on the English language

An estimated 80,000 English words are of French origin, with expressions like “c’est la vie” or “je ne sais quoi” a common part of English vocabulary. But how did that particular language have such a profound influence on its linguistic cousin? It turns out the main roots lie in a “rendez-vous” with history all the way back to the Middle Ages.

In 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror and the Norman-French army defeated England’s Saxon army. After killing King Harold, the Normans seized the throne. William consequently instated the Norman language (a.k.a. French) as the language of the elite. The Norman dynasty ruled in England until 1154. By then, English had already cherry-picked nearly 10,000 new words from both French and Latin.

Infiltration was most common when the French-speaking upper class interacted with the meek. For example, legend goes kitchen staff, from the lower classes, tasked with slaughtering livestock adopted many food-related Norman words.

Thanks to this interaction we now call meat:

  • from cows = beef (French: bœuf)
  • from pigs = pork (French: porc)
  • from deer = venison (French: venaison)

Here are some other examples of English denominations with a French origin

English French Original Literal meaning
Parachute Parachute Para = protection Chute= fall
Envoy Envoyer (verb) Envoyer = to send (recognize envelope?)
Avant-garde Avant-garde Avant = front and Garde = guard
Queue Queue Tail
Renaissance Renaissance Rebirth
Rendezvous Rendez-vous Present yourselves

 

There are also many examples that were simply adopted into English at face value and don’t need any further clarification:

English French Original
Money Monnaie
Commerce Commerce
Passport Passeport
Portrait Portrait
Theatre Théâtre
Caramel Caramel
Cream Crème
Mayonnaise Mayonnaise
Salad Salade
Espionage Espionnage
Surveillance Surveillance
Army Armée

 

However, despite this shared ancestry, French, at times, remains one of the most complex and sophisticated languages in the world. Some words don’t easily transfer from one culture to the next. Here are six verbs without equivalent in English:

  • Avoir ras-le-bol: To be fed up with something, frustrated, tearing your hair out. Impossible to literally translate, the phrase can be used for anything that fills you with uncontrollable rage or despair.
  • Avoir la flemme: To be overcome with laziness as a quasi-affliction. To have “la flemme” means you don’t feel like doing anything.
  • Emmerder: To really annoy someone, although its true meaning goes beyond simple annoyance. The verb has a scatological root in the French “merde,” but its meaning really has little to do with the noun. See related article: https://multilingual.com/macron-trips-up-translators/
  • Juilletistes vs Aoûtiens: Many French take one of the two summer months off for vacation. Those who escape during July are “Juilletistes”. Those who prefer to go in August are Aoûtiens.
  • Tutoyer: French, like Spanish, has a polite form of you: “Vous” and a less formal form of you: “Tu”. Vous is used to address strangers, or anyone who ranks higher on the power hierarchy. The verb Tutoyer describes the act of addressing someone casually with this less formal you, as we’ve previously discussed.

 

 

 

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Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.

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