Words at Play

8 Words We Stole from French

...some of which mean different things in English

esprit de lescalier

When you think of the perfect words too late


We’ve all been in a situation when we think of the perfect thing to say in response to something provocative or insulting too late to say it in the moment. When the right words come, the right time is past. The French call this too-late inspiration l’esprit de l’escalierplay . Esprit is the root of our word spirit, but in French can also mean “wit,” so this phrase is translated literally as “wit of the staircase” and is used to mean repartee thought of too late, on the way home.

The expression was coined by Denis Diderot, the French philosopher of the 1700s, so we can imagine that the grand staircase of a château or manor is what he had in mind.

manet dejeuner sur l herbe
Photo: Edouard Manet, "The Luncheon on the Grass"


When words are borrowed from other languages, it can sometimes seem that the idea the word expresses somehow goes beyond the limits of the language that adopted the new word. In the case of outréplay , that’s also a clue as to the borrowed word’s meaning. Outré means “violating convention or propriety” or “bizarre.” It is used to describe things that are unusual, extravagant, or shocking in some way:

The Donald Trump Paper Doll, the Hillary Clinton Paper Doll and the Bernie Sanders Paper Doll books (all by Tim Foley) cleverly play off the candidates' bios, and each gets 15 outfits. The Trump doll, not surprisingly, inspires the most outré costumes, such as the Statue of Liberty to connote his immigration policies.
—Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today, 7 July 2016

[Paul] Dano was immediately drawn to the screenplay's mix of heart and humor. He acknowledged that the film's outre shorthand could obscure what it's really about."Right now it's the farting corpse movie, but for people who've seen it, I hope it will be more than that," Dano said.
—Mark Olsen, Chicago Tribune, 5 July 2016

Santa Fe struck me as one of those places that draws in people who are looking for something more (for want of a better word) spiritual than the workaday modern world can generally supply. Dating from the Spanish colonial era and boasting the oldest public building in the US (the Palace of the Governors) and one of the oldest churches (the San Miguel Chapel), it's a gorgeous little town of soft-cornered, low-rise adobe buildings, with a tree-shaded plaza and wooden colonnades, funky galleries, acclaimed restaurants and outré therapies—not to mention the world-class O'Keeffe Museum.
The Telegraph, 4 July 2016

Outré comes from the French verb outrer, which means “to exaggerate” or “to outrage.” Even though the word does refer to things “outside” of conventions, beware that it’s just a coincidence that outrer looks like the English word outer; it’s ultimately from the Latin word ultra, which means “beyond” or “farther.”

Photo: Jacques-Louis David, "Napoleon Crossing the Alps"


Reconnoiterplay is the less familiar verb form of reconnaissanceplay ; if reconnaissance means “a preliminary survey to gain information,” then reconnoiter means “to go to a place in order to gain information.” Unsurprisingly, it is most often used in military contexts.

Reconnoiter comes from the French word that means “to recognize,” based on the verb connaître which means “to know,” so both recognize and reconnoiter literally mean “to know again” according to their shared etymology. This French word is related to other English words including recognize, cognizant, and connoisseur.

Reconnoiter is spelled with an o and reconnaissance with an a because they were borrowed into English at different times; the o spelling reflects an older French spelling. This is also true of connoisseur, since the way that word is spelled today in French (connaisseur) reflects the change in spelling in French after the word came into English.

The g in English words like recognize and cognizant was introduced by Renaissance scholars who wanted English to show the Latin ancestry of these French borrowings. The ultimate Latin root of all these words is cognoscere.

Photo: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance"


When being extremely judgmental about something, we are likely to narrow our eyes. In fact, sometimes that’s all we need to do in order to communicate disapproval. Without knowing it, we are expressing the history of louche. Loucheplay means “not reputable or decent”:

Jaime [Lannister] entered the story as a louche villain but has evolved into a more shaded figure, torn between his toxic devotion to his lover and twin sister, Cersei, and more honorable impulses.
—Jeremy Egner, The New York Times, 29 June 2016

Louche comes from the French word that means “cross-eyed” or “squint-eyed” and eventually gained a figurative meaning of “shady” or “devious.” It ultimately comes from the Latin word luscus, which means “one-eyed.”

au courant


Au courantplay is a fancy way of saying “current” in connection with both recent information and fashion.

The term has been dropped into English sentences since the mid-1700s, and its use has shown a variety of subtle distinctions in meaning. It can be used to mean “fully informed,” as in “they seemed to be au courant of everything that had happened.” It can mean “up-to-date” or “abreast,” as in “the dictionary stays au courant through constant revision.” It has the straightforward meaning of “stylish” or “fashionable” as in “au courant clothes.” Finally, it can mean “aware,” “informed,” or “cognizant,” as in “we were au courant of what happened.”

The French word courant comes from the verb courir, which means “to run.”


"Sabots" were wooden clogs worn in rural Europe.

Photo: Francois Boucher, "Les sabots," detail


Sabotageplay means “deliberate destruction,” but its oldest meaning in English is more specific:

destruction of an employer's property (as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers

A sabot is a wooden shoe, formerly worn in rural Europe, and it later became the word for a metal “shoe” or bracket used in construction and laying railroad tracks. The French verb saboter originally meant “to secure with a metal bracket” but also came to mean “to botch” or “to do in a clumsy or slipshod way.” Finally, it came to have the “deliberate destruction,” a meaning, which, some have said, came about because of striking workers who threw their wooden shoes in the factory machinery to cause it to stop and break.

Photo: Paul Czanne, "Pierrot and Harlequin"


Gaucheplay is the French word for “left.” Its secondary or figurative meaning was “awkward” or “clumsy,” and that is the sense that came into English in the 1700s. Gauche is only one of several words that betray a prejudice against left-handedness; it came from a Germanic root and replaced the Latin-based word senestre—the origin of sinister—to mean “left” in French. Words like adroit and dexterity, with positive connotations, come from words for right-handedness.



Entrepreneurplay is a word that has come to have connotations of imagination, daring, and success—qualities that seem to be universally admired in contemporary business. And, in fact, it’s a new word in English, dating only to the mid-1800s—the reason it has kept its very French spelling and pronunciation. The much older word enterprise shares its roots with entrepreneur; an entrepreneur is one who starts or manages an enterprise: an “enterpriser,” if you will.

In French, entrepreneur can also mean “contractor,” as in a person who oversees the construction of a building. It’s also used to mean “undertaker” or “funeral director.” The words undertaker and entrepreneur are very similar: an entrepreneur “undertakes” a business, and the French word comes from prendre, meaning “to take.”

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