Foreign words and phrases

Over the centuries the English language has assimilated words and phrases from a variety of other languages. In context, those listed here are often printed in italics.

ab initioLatin from the beginning
a cappellaItalian sung without instrumental accompaniment (literally ‘in chapel style’)
à deuxFrench for or involving two people
ad hocLatin made or done for a particular purpose (literally ‘to this’)
ad infinitumLatin endlessly; forever (literally ‘to infinity’)
ad interimLatin for the meantime
ad nauseamLatin to a tiresomely excessive degree (literally ‘to sickness’)
a fortioriLatin more conclusively (literally ‘from a stronger [argument]’)
agent provocateurFrench a person who tempts a suspected criminal to commit a crime so that they can be caught and convicted (literally ‘provocative agent’)
à huis closFrench in private (literally ‘with closed doors’)
al denteItalian (of food) cooked so as to be still firm when bitten (literally ‘to the tooth’)
alfrescoItalian in the open air (literally ‘in the fresh’)
amour propreFrench self-respect (literally ‘own love’)
annus mirabilisLatin a remarkable or auspicious year
a posterioriLatin based on reasoning from known facts or past events rather than on assumptions or predictions (literally ‘from what comes after’)
a prioriLatin based on deduction rather than experience (literally ‘from what is before’)
au courantFrench well informed; up to date (literally ‘in the (regular) course’)
au faitFrench having a good or detailed knowledge (literally ‘to the point’)
au fondFrench basically; in essence (literally ‘at the bottom’)
au naturelFrench in the most simple or natural way
beau gesteFrench a noble and generous act (literally ‘fine gesture’)
beau idéalFrench the highest standard of excellence (literally ‘ideal beauty’)
beau mondeFrench fashionable society (literally ‘fine world’)
beaux artsFrench the fine arts
bête noireFrench a person or thing one particularly dislikes (literally ‘black beast’)
belles-lettresFrench literary works written and read for their elegant style (literally ‘fine letters’)
billet-douxFrench a love letter (literally ‘sweet note’)
blitzkriegGerman an intense, violent military campaign intended to bring about a swift victory (literally ‘lightning war’)
bona fideLatin genuine; real (literally ‘with good faith’)
bon motFrench a clever or witty remark (literally ‘good word’)
bon vivantFrench a person with a sociable and luxurious lifestyle (literally ‘person living well’)
brasserieFrench an informal or inexpensive restaurant (literally ‘brewery’)
carpe diemLatin make the most of the present time (literally ‘seize the day!’)
carte blancheFrench complete freedom to act as one wishes (literally ‘blank paper’)
cause célèbreFrench a controversial issue attracting much public attention (literally ‘famous case’)
caveat emptorLatin the buyer is responsible for checking the quality of goods before purchasing them (literally ‘let the buyer beware’)
c’est la guerreFrench used as an expression of resigned acceptance (literally ‘that's war’)
chacun à son goutFrench everyone to their own taste
chef-d’œuvreFrench a masterpiece (literally ‘chief work’)
cherchez la femmeFrench there is certain to be a woman at the bottom of a problem or mystery (literally ‘look for the woman’)
comme il fautFrench correct in behavior or etiquette (literally ‘as is necessary’)
compos mentisLatin sane; in full control of one's mind
cognoscentiItalian people who are well informed about something (literally ‘people who know’)
cordon sanitaireFrench a guarded line placed around an area infected by disease to prevent anyone from leaving (literally ‘sanitary line’)
Cosa NostraItalian a U.S. criminal organization related to the Mafia (literally ‘our thing’)
coup de foudreFrench love at first sight (literally ‘stroke of lightning’)
coup de grâceFrench a blow by which a mortally wounded person or thing is mercifully killed (literally ‘stroke of grace’)
coup de mainFrench a sudden surprise attack (literally ‘stroke of hand’)
coup d’étatFrench a sudden violent seizure of power (literally ‘blow of state’)
cri de cœurFrench a passionate appeal or protest (literally ‘cry from the heart’)
cui bono?Latin who stands to gain? (implying that whoever does may have been responsible for a crime; literally ‘to whom (is it) a benefit?’)
de factoLatin in fact, whether by right or not
Dei gratiaLatin by the grace of God
déjà vuFrench the sense of having experienced the present situation before (literally ‘already seen’)
de jureLatin rightful; by right (literally ‘of law’)
de nos joursFrench contemporary (literally ‘of our days’)
Deo gratiasLatin thanks be to God
Deo volenteLatin God willing
de profundisLatin expressing one's deepest feelings (literally ‘from the depths’)
de rigueurFrench obligatory; required by etiquette or current fashion (literally ‘of strictness’)
dernier criFrench the very latest fashion (literally ‘the last cry’)
de tropFrench not wanted; superfluous (literally ‘excessive’)
deus ex machinaLatin an unexpected event that saves an apparently hopeless situation (literally ‘god from the machinery’)
dolce far nienteItalian pleasant idleness (literally ‘sweet doing nothing’)
dolce vitaItalian a life of pleasure and luxury (literally ‘sweet life’)
doppelgängerGerman an apparition or double of a living person (literally ‘double-goer’)
double entendreFrench a word or phrase with two possible interpretations (from obsolete French, ‘double understanding’)
dramatis personaeLatin the characters in a play (literally ‘persons of the drama’)
embarras de richesseFrench more options or resources than one knows what to do with (literally ‘embarrassment of riches’)
éminence griseFrench a person who has power or influence without holding an official position (literally ‘gray eminence’)
en familleFrench with one's family; in an informal way (literally ‘in family’)
enfant terribleFrench a person whose behavior is unconventional or controversial (literally ‘terrible child’)
en masseFrench all together (literally ‘in a mass’)
en passantFrench by the way (literally ‘in passing’)
entente cordialeFrench a friendly understanding between states
entre nousFrench between ourselves
esprit de corpsFrench a feeling of pride and loyalty uniting the members of a group (literally ‘spirit of body’)
ex gratiaLatin (of payment) given as a favor rather than because of any legal obligation (literally ‘from favor’)
ex officioLatin by virtue of one's position or status (literally ‘out of duty’)
fait accompliFrench a thing that has been done or decided and cannot now be altered (literally ‘accomplished fact’)
faute de mieuxFrench for want of a better alternative
faux pasFrench an embarrassing blunder or indiscretion (literally ‘false step’)
femme fataleFrench a seductive woman (literally ‘disastrous woman’)
fête champêtreFrench an outdoor entertainment; a garden party (literally ‘rural festival’)
fin de siècleFrench relating to the end of a century
force majeureFrench superior strength
folie de grandeurFrench delusions of grandeur
gîteFrench a small furnished vacation house in France
grande dameFrench a woman who is influential within a particular sphere (literally ‘grand lady’)
haute coutureFrench the designing and making of clothes by leading fashion houses (literally ‘high dressmaking’)
haute cuisineFrench high-quality cooking (literally ‘high cookery’)
haut mondeFrench fashionable society (literally ‘high world’)
hors de combatFrench out of action due to injury or damage (literally ‘out of the fight’)
ideé fixeFrench an obsession (literally ‘fixed idea’)
in absentiaLatin while not present (literally ‘in absence’)
in cameraLatin in private (literally ‘in the chamber’)
in extremisLatin in an extremely difficult situation; at the point of death
in loco parentisLatin in the place of a parent
in medias resLatin in or into the middle of things
in propria personaLatin: in his or her own person
in situLatin in the original or appropriate position
inter aliaLatin among other things
in totoLatin as a whole
ipso factoLatin by that very fact or act
je ne sais quoiFrench a quality that is hard to describe (literally ‘I do not know what’)
jeu d'espritFrench a lighthearted display of wit (literally ‘game of the mind’)
jeunesse doréeFrench wealthy, fashionable young people (literally ‘gilded youth’)
joie de vivreFrench exuberant enjoyment of life (literally ‘joy of living’)
katzenjammerGerman a hangover or a severe headache accompanying a hangover (literally ‘cats’ wailing’)
laissez-faireFrench a non-interventionist policy (literally ‘allow to do’)
locum tenensLatin a temporary deputy or stand-in (literally ‘one holding a place’)
locus classicusLatin the best known or most authoritative passage on a subject (literally ‘classical place’)
magnum opusLatin the most important work of an artist, writer, etc. (literally ‘great work’)
manquéFrench having failed to become what one might have been (from manquer ‘to lack’)
mea culpaLatin an acknowledgement that something is one's fault (literally ‘by my fault’)
memento moriLatin something kept as a reminder that death is inevitable (literally ‘remember (that you have) to die’)
ménage à troisFrench an arrangement in which a married couple and the lover of one of them live together (literally ‘household of three’)
modus operandiLatin a way of doing something (literally ‘way of operating’)
modus vivendiLatin an arrangement that allows conflicting parties to coexist peacefully (literally ‘way of living’)
mot justeFrench the most appropriate word or expression
ne plus ultraLatin the best example of something (literally ‘not further beyond’)
nil desperandumLatin do not despair
noblesse obligeFrench privilege entails responsibility
nolens volensLatin whether one wants or likes something or not (literally ‘not willing, willing’)
non sequiturLatin a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous statement (literally ‘it does not follow’)
nouveau richeFrench people who have recently become rich and who display their wealth ostentatiously (literally ‘new rich’)
objet d’artFrench a small decorative or artistic object
on ditFrench a piece of gossip (literally ‘they say’)
papabileItalian worthy or eligible to be elected pope
par excellenceFrench better or more than all others of the same kind (literally ‘by excellence’)
parti prisFrench a preconceived view; a bias (literally ‘side taken’)
per annumLatin for each year
per capitaLatin for each person (literally ‘by heads’)
per seLatin by or in itself or themselves
persona non grataLatin a person who is not welcome somewhere
pièce de résistanceFrench the most important or impressive item (literally ‘piece (i.e. means) of resistance’)
pied-à-terreFrench a small apartment or house kept for occasional use (literally ‘foot to earth’)
pis allerFrench a last resort (literally ‘worse to go’)
plat du jourFrench a special dish prepared by a restaurant on a particular day (literally ‘dish of the day’)
plus ça changeFrench used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fact that certain things never change (from plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ‘the more it changes, the more it stays the same’)
pococuranteItalian careless or nonchalant (literally ‘little caring’)
prima facieLatin accepted as so until proved otherwise (literally ‘at first face’)
primus inter paresLatin the senior or representative member of a group (literally ‘first among equals’)
pro rataLatin proportional; proportionally (literally ‘according to the rate’)
proxime accessitLatin the person who comes second in an examination or is runner-up for an award (literally ‘came very near’)
quid pro quoLatin a favor or advantage given in return for something (literally ‘something for something’)
raison d’êtreFrench the most important reason for someone or something's existence (literally ‘reason for being’)
reductio ad absurdumLatin a method of disproving a premise by showing that its logical conclusion is absurd (literally ‘reduction to the absurd’)
roman-à-clefFrench a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names (literally ‘novel with a key’)
sangfroidFrench the ability to stay calm in difficult circumstances (literally ‘cold blood’)
savoir faireFrench the ability to act appropriately in social situations (literally ‘know how to do’)
sine dieLatin (of proceedings) adjourned indefinitely (literally ‘without a day’)
sine qua nonLatin a thing that is absolutely essential (literally ‘without which not’)
soi-disantFrench self-styled; so-called (literally ‘self-saying’)
sotto voceItalian in a quiet voice (literally ‘under voice’)
sub judiceLatin being considered by a court of law and therefore not to be publicly discussed elsewhere (literally ‘under a judge’)
sub rosaLatin happening or done in secret (literally ‘under the rose’)
sui generisLatin unique (literally ‘of its own kind’)
table d’hôteFrench a restaurant meal offered at a fixed price, with few if any choices (literally ‘host's table’)
tant mieuxFrench so much the better
tant pisFrench so much the worse; too bad
terra firmaLatin dry land; the ground (literally ‘firm land’)
terra incognitaLatin unknown territory
tête-à-têteFrench a private conversation (literally ‘head-to-head’)
tour de forceFrench a thing accomplished with great skill (literally ‘feat of strength’)
tout de suiteFrench at once (literally ‘quite in sequence’)
unheimlichGerman uncanny or weird
verbotenGerman forbidden
via mediaLatin a compromise (literally ‘middle way’)
victor ludorumLatin the overall champion in a sports competition (literally ‘victor of the games’)
vis-à-visFrench in relation to; as compared with (literally ‘face-to-face’)
vox populiLatin public opinion (literally ‘the voice of the people’)
zeitgeistGerman the characteristic spirit or mood of a particular historical period (literally ‘time spirit’)

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