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Everyday English words with French origins

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

How much do you know the roots of the English language? Most people know that English has Germanic roots, but that’s often the extent of it. And while English remains a Germanic language at its core, few people realise how potent the French influence is for our language. One date in medieval history in particular ensured that thousands of English words would have French origins, and would have ties to luxury and high-class culture.

The Battle of Hastings

On 14 October, 1066, the Battle of Hastings changed the course of the English language forever. Earlier that year, the English King, Edward the Confessor, died and King Harold took the throne. Sensing an opportunity (or a weakness perhaps), the Norman army, under Duke William of Normandy, advanced. It was a vicious attack, and back in this day, rulers didn’t shy away from a battle. In the midst of this onslaught, King Harold was killed. Normandy had won.

As a result, the courts were no longer in the hands of the English. This meant that the language of the ruling classes – the nobles and royalty – was French. And if English nobles wanted to maintain any power, they had better learn the new way of speaking. Those French origins have trickled through the centuries without many of us realising.

French Origins: Food!

You’ve probably already guessed that many words we use in culinary culture have French origins. Many of these, after all, don’t hide their roots very well.

We’ll start with the obvious ones. Gateau, menu, restaurant, vinaigrette, soufflé, and omelette – these five are direct borrowings. In fact, the only difference between these five words and their French counterparts is the accent in gateau – gâteau. Salad, soup, and utensil have merely sliced the ‘e’ off the end. Their French origins are salade, soupe, and utensile.

Moreover, some words are similar, if not exactly the same. Beef, pork, and mutton have roots in French: beouf, porc, and mouton. Though mutton may not be incredibly common these days, it certainly would have been more relevant in the Middle Ages.

Arts and Culture

Again unsurprisingly, words related to arts and culture are derived directly from the French. The word literature, for instance, comes from the Old French word littérature. Similarly, the word novel directly coincides with the Old French novel. Another Old French word that has slipped through is galerie – our modern gallery.

Is your child in ballet? If you had used that word in France, they would know exactly what you meant – spelling and all. And it’s no surprise that papier-mâché is a direct borrowing from the French. But its elegant sound doesn’t make it any less of a mess!

Given the 1066 conquering of Britain, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that Middle French also trickled through the centuries. The Middle French word poétique was transformed into our poetic.

Words Your Kids Use All the Time

This may be a big one with which your kids are very familiar – alouance. Any thoughts? If you guessed its English counterpart is allowance, you’re right. In fact, if you type that word into an English-language Microsoft Word, it will automatically correct to its anglicized form. Even words for modern inventions have French roots! Television is télévision in French – one word your kids may have learned quickly. Likewise, telephone becomes simply téléphone. And while you may think the word machine is modern, its French origins are actually from Middle French.

If your kids are full of beans then energy is definitely one you’re familiar with. That term comes from the Middle French word énergie. Another Middle French term that may be particularly relevant if your French-learning child has siblings is insult. This comes from the Middle French noun insult, with the verb insulter.

And if you’ve ever been on a trip without your little ones, they may have asked for a souvenir. This word comes from the French souvenir, meaning, appropriately, ‘memory.’

Words of Luxury

Because French was the language of the nobles, it makes sense that words associated with riches have French origins. In fact, the word rich comes directly from the French riche. Another that can be associated with royal courts of old is tournament, originating from the Old French word tornoiement.

Likewise, manor comes from the French word manoir, and mansion has similarities to a French word for house – maison. When was the last time you referred to your bedroom as a chamber? Well, you probably haven’t, unless you’re of noble birth or from the nineteenth century. But the term chamber is French for room.

Too Many to Count

We could go on and on. From uniform (Middle French, uniforme) to valid (Middle French, valide) and variety (Middle French, varieté) to optimism (optimisme). One that Canadians will be particularly familiar with is lacrosse. This is a borrowing from our own French Canadian friends: la crosse, meaning the stick.

In fact, by some estimates, there are around 7000 words in the English language that are direct loans from French or have French origins. While this doesn’t mean that any English speaker could pick up any French book and understand all, these similarities certainly help with vocabulary expansion!

We just love our close linguistic relationship with our French friends. Are there any words that you think might have French origins? Talk to your FranceABC student about these to pique their interest in the language, and keep their passion for learning open.

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