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