5 French-Origin English Words and Phrases That Make You Look Smart if Used Correctly

Bonjour, comment allez vous? (Hi, how are you?) Did you know that approximately 30% of English vocabulary has a French origin? Most of it has been modified and adapted for the English tongue, so to speak. Still, there are many phrases and words that are essentially the same in modern French language as they are in modern English. We use French as we speak English sometimes, therefore. This has benefits and drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that it's hard to remember how to pronounce these French things. Another is that we're often confused about how to use them, having disagreements on their meanings. Nonetheless, your speaking skills and writing skills will be better once you get them nailed down.

There is a dictionary meaning and a set of phonetics for each French word and phrase and they usually agree with the pronunciation and meaning you'll find in a French dictionary. Anyone who has learned French already knows this. Let's learn so we can show off our proper French English. Any link to the MacMillan dictionary below will take you to a page with a "pronunciation" button. Click it to hear a correct reading of the word or phrase. 

Pièce de Résistance

A pièce de résistance is the most important feature or part of something. For example, if a chef thinks the dessert is the most impressive part of a five course meal, he may refer to it as the pièce de résistance. 

"Pièce" looks a lot like the English word "piece," but beware. It is pronounced like "pyess." Just add a little more of an "ah" sound to "ance" in the following word. And yes, it is common to include the accents (è,é), even in English writing. For more help, refer to MacMillan.

Chic

For the love of Pete, stop using this word when you mean "chick," referring to a young woman. "Chic" is pronounced "sheek" and it means "fashionable." Talk about speaking skills... That's not so easy to pronounce. But the trick here relates to writing skills, since you don't want to write "chic" when you mean "chick." Imagine having a brand name with this word in it. You want to make sure the right meaning is there.

Voilà

This word is used in any situation when there's something you want everyone to notice, usually in the context of creating something or pulling something off. I take the ingredients, mix them together with a whisk and voilà, now we have the most delicious mayonnaise you've ever tasted. 

The trouble is the pronuciation. It sounds like "vwah lah." You don't have to stress the second syllable, like "vwah LAH!" In fact, "vwAH lah" is perfect. It's NOT pronounced "wah lah." Make sure you include the sound of the letter "v" at the beginning.

Banal

This one actually retains its French phonetics. Rather than "bay null," It's pronounced "bah nahl" in English and in French. Stress the second syllable a little more than the first (bah NAHL). By the way, it means normal, mundane, unexciting. 

Du Jour

This phrase sounds like "do joor" with a soft, French "j" sound. Even the dictionaries disagree on this one. Some omit the "ewww" sound in "du" (sounds like "dew") and pronounce the word like the sound the letter "d" makes by itself, even though the phonetic transcription for the phrase suggests otherwise. You can pronounce it like the French do, "dew zhoor." Or, this way.

That's a good start. Now you can speak and write with these words and phrases properly. Go impress some folks!

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David Kalla