Here’s a list of French phrases and sayings that are used in English often enough to have become part of the language. Many of these relate to those French preoccupations, fashion and food.
À la carte – On the menu, with each dish priced.
À la mode – Fashionable; also, in the USA, with ice cream.
Agent provocateur – ‘Provocative agent’ – a spy employed to induce or incite a suspected person or group to commit an incriminating act.
Aide-de-camp – An officer who assists a general in his military duties.
Aide-mémoire – An aid to memory.
Après-ski – Socializing after a skiing session. Also a name of a type of footwear worn after removing ski boots.
Art déco – ‘Decorative art’ – a style of art originating in Paris in the early 20th century. An eclectic and glamourous artform, taking in aspects of Cubism and geometric industrial design.
Art nouveau – ‘New art’ – a style of art developed towards the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by ornamentation based on organic or foliate forms and by its asymmetric and curvaceous lines.
Au contraire – To the contrary. Often used with an arch or rather camp form of delivery.
Au fait – To be conversant with; familiar with.
Au gratin – ‘With gratings’ – in French, anything that is grated onto a food dish. In English, specifically ‘with cheese’.
Au naturel – Undressed or ‘in a natural state’.
Au pair – A young foreigner, usually female, who undertakes domestic tasks in exchange for accommodation.
Au revoir – Farewell for the time being. Sometimes given in English in the jokey au reservoir version.
Avant garde – The pioneers or innovators in art in a particular period. Also, a military term, meaning
vanguard or advance guard.
Belle époque – ‘Beautiful era’ – the golden age of art and culture in France in the early 20th century.
Bête noire – A pet peeve. A thing or person found particularly unwelcome and to be avoided.
Billet doux – A short love letter or note.
Bon appétit – ‘Good appetite’ – “Enjoy your food”.
Bon mot – Clever, witty remark.
Bon vivant – ‘Good liver’ – a person who enjoys life, especially ‘wine, women and song’.
Bon voyage – Have a good trip.
Café au lait – Coffee with milk.
Carte blanche – Having free rein to choose whatever course of action you want.
Cause célèbre – An issue arousing widespread controversy or debate. An English invention, rarely used in France.
C’est la vie – That’s life or such is life. Often used in disappointed resignation following some bad fortune.
Chaise longue – ‘Long chair’ – a form of sofa with an elongated seat long enough to support the legs. Often erroneously called a chaise lounge in the USA. This isn’t the derivation of either the noun or verb lounge, which both long pre-date the invention of chaise longues.
Chargé d’affaires – A diplomat, temporarily in charge of business.
Cherchez la femme – Literally, “look for the woman.”
Cinéma vérité – A form of filmmaking that combines documentary-style techniques to tell a story.
Cordon bleu – High quality, especially of cooking.
Cordon sanitaire – A political or medical buffer zone.
Coup d’état – An abrupt overthrow of a government through unconstitutional means, for example, by force, or by occupation of government structures during the leader’s absence.
Coup de grâce – Originally a blow by which one condemned or mortally wounded is ‘put out of his misery’.