20 Interesting French and German Loanwords
English, as the most widely used language in the world, is exceptionally broad, spoken by people from a number of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Despite its vast influence, however, there exists in English a vast array of loanwords, that is, words borrowed from other tongues, often in order to describe a concept or idea for which no single word exists in English. Due to the history of the English language and its development over the centuries, a large number of these loanwords are clearly from the French and German languages, yet hundreds of others of French or German origin have been fully anglicised over the years. Below I have endeavoured to collect some of my favourite loanwords from these fantastic languages, many of which I'm confident you'll instantly recognise.
- Fiancé(e): Starting off the French words with an exceptionally common one, this everyday expression refers to one’s betrothed – the man or woman that one intends to wed. The double 'e' spelling is used to refer to women, with this final 'e' being dropped when used in reference to men.
- Schadenfreude:Borrowed from the German language, this word describes the pleasure received from another’s misfortune.
- Déjà vu: Literally translated as ‘already seen’, I’m sure most of you are familiar with this French reference to the sudden, rather eerie sensation that current occurrences have been experienced in the past.
- Wanderlust: If you’re a compulsive traveller, this German word, referring to an intense desire for wandering, suits you perfectly.
- Ennui: Perhaps English speakers were once largely optimistic, necessitating the borrowing of this French word when times turned tough to describe the feelings of dissatisfaction and boredom associated with indifference and lack of occupation.
- Kindergarten: I’m sure most of you are aware of this word and its German origins, referring to a move into education undertaken by children.
Nom de plume: Common in the literary world, this is a French word describing authors who write under a pen name or pseudonym.
- Doppelgänger: Another one that has wound its way into deeper levels of familiarity in recent times, this German word refers to an apparition of a living person, however, in English it is generally used to describe two seemingly identical people who bear no relation.
Coup d’état: You're bound to be familiar with this French description of the illegal act of seizing governmental power.
- Zeitgeist: Yet another German word, this time describing something that encapsulates an era.
- Tête-à-tête: Literally translating to ‘head to head’, this French word refers to private or surreptitious conversation between two people. It's similar to another French loanword, vis-à-vis, meaning 'face to face', although also often used to mean 'in relation to'.
- Blitz: This is a German word meaning 'lightning', and accordingly describes a sudden, highly intense military attack. It came into common use when the German aerial bombings against the British during the Second World War were labelled, 'The Blitz', and is itself a shortening of the the German word blitzkrieg, meaning 'lightning war'.
- À la carte:Yep, the French language has infiltrated English to a fair extent. This one simply means, ‘according to the menu’, and is used in reference to menu items that are placed and ordered separately. Ever heard someone order something à la carte? It merely means that they’re asking for the item alone, without any sides.
- Angst: That's right, this frequently-used word describing fear, deep apprehension, and dread, is actually of German origin.
- Faux pas: The French word faux, meaning ‘false’, is itself commonly heard amongst English speakers, however, when paired with the word pas, it denotes the violation of a commonly accepted social convention.
- Hinterland: Who would've guessed that the word you're using to describe the beautiful, remote backcountry through which you're hiking is actually from German?
- Ménage à trois:French for a group of three people living together and usually engaging in a sexual relationship.
- Leitmotiv: Common in the musical world, this German word is applied to a dominant or a central theme that runs throughout a piece of music. The term is also used frequently in the literary world to refer to recurring themes and motifs, and can indeed be applied to any central theme in numerous art forms.
- Avant Garde: Yet another French word, this time referring to innovative or experimental people or things, especially in regards to the arts.
- Schnapps: Why not sit back and enjoy this strong, alcoholic drink with the full knowledge that it's named from a German word, meaning 'swallow?'
In addition to these words, there are countless others that have evolved from foreign languages into Anglicised versions, or that continue to be used in English in their original form. For example, most technical musical terms are Italian, most ballet terms are French, and cuisines from all over the world often retain their original names, such as taco and croissant. The more attention that is paid to the English vernacular, the more apparent these words and their foreign origins may become, hopefully heightening our appreciation for the depth of English and the layers upon which it has become established over the centuries.