header print

10 French Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Do

 Since 1066, when England was conquered by the Normans- a warlike people of mixed Scandinavian and French stock- English has been heavily influenced by the French language, so much so, that some linguists debate that English has effectively become a hybrid Germanic-Romance language. This was only reinforced by the intense (and often openly hostile) relationship between France and England throughout the Middle Ages. 
Even in colonial times, English speakers were in constant contact with Quebecois and Acadian (Cajun) French-speakers, so it comes as no surprise that English features many terms directly lifted from French, often with the intention of lending a fancy and pretentious air to whatever it is you’re trying to say (a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will).
But just because we’ve adopted these words, doesn’t mean that we’re actually using them correctly. Here are some of the most egregious examples of words that would make a French speaker’s ears bleed.
 
1. Fillet (French: filet)
French words: fillet
How we pronounce it: fillay
How it’s pronounced: filleh
Perhaps the most common mispronunciation of French loanwords is turning the final E in words that end in “et” or “é” into an “ay” diphthong. This can also be seen in words such as buffet (bouffeh in French, buhffay in English), as well as this following word:
2. Entrée
French words: entree
How we pronounce it: ontray
How it’s pronounced: untreh
This is a prime example, because we have here both a mispronunciation, as well as a widely divergent meaning. In French, entrée means “entrance”, and in the context of food- a starter, whereas in English it came to mean the main course. 
3. Hors d’oeuvres
French words: hors d'oeuvre
How we pronounce it: or durves
How it’s pronounced: or doovre
Another way to refer to an appetizer or starter, here we can see an example of metathesis, a linguistic phenomenon where consonants are interchanged for ease of pronunciation, as “vr” isn’t a common consonant cluster in English, particularly in the final position, while “rv” is far more palatable (serve, swerve, and in UK English- turves).
4. Déjà vu
French words: deja vu
How we pronounce it: day javoo
How it’s pronounced: déjà vu
Probably less offensive a mangling than the other contenders, the stress in the English pronunciation is nevertheless all wrong, due to the elongated “ay” diphthong. Try pronouncing the words separately for a better approximation.
5. Guillotine
French words: guillotine
How we pronounce it: gilliotine
How it’s pronounced: giyotine
Just like Spanish "pollo", the “ll” grapheme in French, when followed by a vowel produces a “y” sound. This is preserved in the English pronunciation, however without actually discarding the “l” sound.
6. Coup de Grâce
French words: coup de graceSource: Steve Evans
How we pronounce it: coo de gra
How it’s pronounced: coo de grahss
Staying on the grisly topic of execution, this is a rather amusing case of what’s called hypercorrection, a mispronunciation born out of a desire to say the word the “proper” and “authentic” way. Some people figured that, because French often drops the final consonant, the “-ce” in this idiom should be silent. The result is that, instead of delivering a blow of mercy, you dish out a stroke of fat or grease.
7. Double entendre (in French: à double sens)
French words: double entendre
How we pronounce it: dubbel uhntundray
How it’s pronounced: ah dooble sunse
In this case, it’s not merely a problem of mispronunciation, as this particular term doesn’t actually exist in French. Taken as is, double entendre would mean something like “double to hear” which is grammatically incorrect. "À double entente" could be used to refer to a word or phrase with a double meaning, though "à double sens" is a far more common way of saying this.
8. Négligée
French words: negligeeSource: Emma Benitez
As you might imagine, this doesn’t refer in French to a sheer nightgown, but is rather a particularly rude way of referring to the woman wearing it as somehow “neglected”. In French, the sexy nightwear is actually known as déshabillé, literally “undressed”.
9. Chagrin
French words: chagrin
How we pronounce it: shagrin
How it’s pronounced: shagrun
Whereas in English "much to my chagrin" expresses consternation or exasperation, in French it means a deep sense of sorrow and woe. This not-quite-exact relationship between two words with a shared etymology is what's called faux amis, or "false friends". The reason the term is in French is because English and French have a lot of these false friends.
10. À la mode
French words: a la mode
In French, this phrase means “in the fashion of”, but never “with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top”. If you were to ask for a tart à la mode, the only thing you would receive is a blank stare or a condescending smirk.
Sign Up Free
Did you mean:
By clicking "Join", you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
Sign Up Free
Did you mean:
By clicking "Join", you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy