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 initio Latin from the beginning
a cappella Italian sung without instrumental accompaniment (literally ‘in chapel style’)
à deux French for or involving two people
ad hoc Latin made or done for a particular purpose (literally ‘to this’)
ad infinitum Latin endlessly; forever (literally ‘to infinity’)
ad interim Latin for the meantime
ad nauseam Latin to a tiresomely excessive degree (literally ‘to sickness’)
a fortiori Latin more conclusively (literally ‘from a stronger [argument]’)
agent provocateur French a person who tempts a suspected criminal to commit a crime so that they can be caught and convicted (literally ‘provocative agent’)
à huis clos French in private (literally ‘with closed doors’)
al dente Italian (of food) cooked so as to be still firm when bitten (literally ‘to the tooth’)
alfresco Italian in the open air (literally ‘in the fresh’)
amour propre French self-respect (literally ‘own love’)
annus mirabilis Latin a remarkable or auspicious year
a posteriori Latin based on reasoning from known facts or past events rather than on assumptions or predictions (literally ‘from what comes after’)
a priori Latin based on deduction rather than experience (literally ‘from what is before’)
au courant French well informed; up to date (literally ‘in the (regular) course’)
au fait French having a good or detailed knowledge (literally ‘to the point’)
au fond French basically; in essence (literally ‘at the bottom’)
au naturel French in the most simple or natural way
beau geste French a noble and generous act (literally ‘fine gesture’)
beau idéal French the highest standard of excellence (literally ‘ideal beauty’)
beau monde French fashionable society (literally ‘fine world’)
beaux arts French the fine arts
bête noire French a person or thing one particularly dislikes (literally ‘black beast’)
belles-lettres French literary works written and read for their elegant style (literally ‘fine letters’)
billet-doux French a love letter (literally ‘sweet note’)
blitzkrieg German an intense, violent military campaign intended to bring about a swift victory (literally ‘lightning war’)
bona fide Latin genuine; real (literally ‘with good faith’)
bon mot French a clever or witty remark (literally ‘good word’)
bon vivant French a person with a sociable and luxurious lifestyle (literally ‘person living well’)
brasserie French an informal or inexpensive restaurant (literally ‘brewery’)
carpe diem Latin make the most of the present time (literally ‘seize the day!’)
carte blanche French complete freedom to act as one wishes (literally ‘blank paper’)
cause célèbre French a controversial issue attracting much public attention (literally ‘famous case’)
caveat emptor Latin the buyer is responsible for checking the quality of goods before purchasing them (literally ‘let the buyer beware’)
c’est la guerre French used as an expression of resigned acceptance (literally ‘that's war’)
chacun à son gout French everyone to their own taste
chef-d’œuvre French a masterpiece (literally ‘chief work’)
cherchez la femme French there is certain to be a woman at the bottom of a problem or mystery (literally ‘look for the woman’)
comme il faut French correct in behaviour or etiquette (literally ‘as is necessary’)
compos mentis Latin sane; in full control of one's mind
cognoscenti Italian people who are well informed about something (literally ‘people who know’)
cordon sanitaire French a guarded line placed around an area infected by disease to prevent anyone from leaving (literally ‘sanitary line’)
Cosa Nostra Italian a US criminal organization related to the Mafia (literally ‘our thing’)
coup de foudre French love at first sight (literally ‘stroke of lightning’)
coup de grâce French a blow by which a mortally wounded person or thing is mercifully killed (literally ‘stroke of grace’)
coup de main French a sudden surprise attack (literally ‘stroke of hand’)
coup d’état French a sudden violent seizure of power (literally ‘blow of state’)
cri de cœur French 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 facto Latin in fact, whether by right or not
Dei gratia Latin by the grace of God
déjà vu French the sense of having experienced the present situation before (literally ‘already seen’)
de jure Latin rightful; by right (literally ‘of law’)
de nos jours French contemporary (literally ‘of our days’)
Deo gratias Latin thanks be to God
Deo volente Latin God willing
de profundis Latin expressing one's deepest feelings (literally ‘from the depths’)
de rigueur French obligatory; required by etiquette or current fashion (literally ‘of strictness’)
dernier cri French the very latest fashion (literally ‘the last cry’)
de trop French not wanted; superfluous (literally ‘excessive’)
deus ex machina Latin an unexpected event that saves an apparently hopeless situation (literally ‘god from the machinery’)
dolce far niente Italian pleasant idleness (literally ‘sweet doing nothing’)
dolce vita Italian a life of pleasure and luxury (literally ‘sweet life’)
doppelgänger German an apparition or double of a living person (literally ‘double-goer’)
double entendre French a word or phrase with two possible interpretations (from obsolete French, ‘double understanding’)
dramatis personae Latin the characters in a play (literally ‘persons of the drama’)
embarras de richesse French more options or resources than one knows what to do with (literally ‘embarrassment of riches’)
éminence grise French a person who has power or influence without holding an official position (literally ‘grey eminence’)
en famille French with one's family; in an informal way (literally ‘in family’)
enfant terrible French a person whose behaviour is unconventional or controversial (literally ‘terrible child’)
en masse French all together (literally ‘in a mass’)
en passant French by the way (literally ‘in passing’)
entente cordiale French a friendly understanding between states
entre nous French between ourselves
esprit de corps French a feeling of pride and loyalty uniting the members of a group (literally ‘spirit of body’)
ex gratia Latin (of payment) given as a favour rather than because of any legal obligation (literally ‘from favour’)
ex officio Latin by virtue of one's position or status (literally ‘out of duty’)
fait accompli French a thing that has been done or decided and cannot now be altered (literally ‘accomplished fact’)
faute de mieux French for want of a better alternative
faux pas French an embarrassing blunder or indiscretion (literally ‘false step’)
femme fatale French a seductive woman (literally ‘disastrous woman’)
fête champêtre French an outdoor entertainment; a garden party (literally ‘rural festival’)
fin de siècle French relating to the end of a century
force majeure French superior strength
folie de grandeur French delusions of grandeur
gîte French a small furnished holiday house in France
grande dame French a woman who is influential within a particular sphere (literally ‘grand lady’)
haute couture French the designing and making of clothes by leading fashion houses (literally ‘high dressmaking’)
haute cuisine French high-quality cooking (literally ‘high cookery’)
haut monde French fashionable society (literally ‘high world’)
hors de combat French out of action due to injury or damage (literally ‘out of the fight’)
ideé fixe French an obsession (literally ‘fixed idea’)
in absentia Latin while not present (literally ‘in absence’)
in camera Latin in private (literally ‘in the chamber’)
in extremis Latin in an extremely difficult situation; at the point of death
in loco parentis Latin in the place of a parent
in medias res Latin in or into the middle of things
in propria persona Latin: in his or her own person
in situ Latin in the original or appropriate position
inter alia Latin among other things
in toto Latin as a whole
ipso facto Latin by that very fact or act
je ne sais quoi French a quality that is hard to describe (literally ‘I do not know what’)
jeu d’esprit French a light-hearted display of wit (literally ‘game of the mind’)
jeunesse dorée French wealthy, fashionable young people (literally ‘gilded youth’)
joie de vivre French exuberant enjoyment of life (literally ‘joy of living’)
katzenjammer German a hangover or a severe headache accompanying a hangover (literally ‘cats’ wailing’)
laissez-faire French a non-interventionist policy (literally ‘allow to do’)
locum tenens Latin a temporary deputy or stand-in (literally ‘one holding a place’)
locus classicus Latin the best known or most authoritative passage on a subject (literally ‘classical place’)
magnum opus Latin the most important work of an artist, writer, etc. (literally ‘great work’)
manqué French having failed to become what one might have been (from manquer ‘to lack’)
mea culpa Latin an acknowledgement that something is one's fault (literally ‘by my fault’)
memento mori Latin something kept as a reminder that death is inevitable (literally ‘remember (that you have) to die’)
ménage à trois French an arrangement in which a married couple and the lover of one of them live together (literally ‘household of three’)
modus operandi Latin a way of doing something (literally ‘way of operating’)
modus vivendi Latin an arrangement that allows conflicting parties to coexist peacefully (literally ‘way of living’)
mot juste French the most appropriate word or expression
ne plus ultra Latin the best example of something (literally ‘not further beyond’)
nil desperandum Latin do not despair
noblesse oblige French privilege entails responsibility
nolens volens Latin whether one wants or likes something or not (literally ‘not willing, willing’)
non sequitur Latin a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous statement (literally ‘it does not follow’)
nouveau riche French people who have recently become rich and who display their wealth ostentatiously (literally ‘new rich’)
objet d’art French a small decorative or artistic object
on dit French a piece of gossip (literally ‘they say’)
papabile Italian worthy or eligible to be elected pope
par excellence French better or more than all others of the same kind (literally ‘by excellence’)
parti pris French a preconceived view; a bias (literally ‘side taken’)
per annum Latin for each year
per capita Latin for each person (literally ‘by heads’)
per se Latin by or in itself or themselves
persona non grata Latin a person who is not welcome somewhere
pièce de résistance French the most important or impressive item (literally ‘piece (i.e. means) of resistance’)
pied-à-terre French a small flat or house kept for occasional use (literally ‘foot to earth’)
pis aller French a last resort (literally ‘worse to go’)
plat du jour French a special dish prepared by a restaurant on a particular day (literally ‘dish of the day’)
plus ça change French 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’)
pococurante Italian careless or nonchalant (literally ‘little caring’)
prima facie Latin accepted as so until proved otherwise (literally ‘at first face’)
primus inter pares Latin the senior or representative member of a group (literally ‘first among equals’)
pro rata Latin proportional; proportionally (literally ‘according to the rate’)
proxime accessit Latin the person who comes second in an examination or is runner-up for an award (literally ‘came very near’)
quid pro quo Latin a favour or advantage given in return for something (literally ‘something for something’)
raison d’être French the most important reason for someone or something's existence (literally ‘reason for being’)
reductio ad absurdum Latin a method of disproving a premise by showing that its logical conclusion is absurd (literally ‘reduction to the absurd’)
roman-à-clef French a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names (literally ‘novel with a key’)
sangfroid French the ability to stay calm in difficult circumstances (literally ‘cold blood’)
savoir faire French the ability to act appropriately in social situations (literally ‘know how to do’)
sine die Latin (of proceedings) adjourned indefinitely (literally ‘without a day’)
sine qua non Latin a thing that is absolutely essential (literally ‘without which not’)
soi-disant French self-styled; so-called (literally ‘self-saying’)
sotto voce Italian in a quiet voice (literally ‘under voice’)
sub judice Latin being considered by a court of law and therefore not to be publicly discussed elsewhere (literally ‘under a judge’)
sub rosa Latin happening or done in secret (literally ‘under the rose’)
sui generis Latin unique (literally ‘of its own kind’)
table d’hôte French a restaurant meal offered at a fixed price, with few if any choices (literally ‘host's table’)
tant mieux French so much the better
tant pis French so much the worse; too bad
terra firma Latin dry land; the ground (literally ‘firm land’)
terra incognita Latin unknown territory
tête-à-tête French a private conversation (literally ‘head-to-head’)
tour de force French a thing accomplished with great skill (literally ‘feat of strength’)
tout de suite French at once (literally ‘quite in sequence’)
unheimlich German uncanny or weird
verboten German forbidden
via media Latin a compromise (literally ‘middle way’)
victor ludorum Latin the overall champion in a sports competition (literally ‘victor of the games’)
vis-à-vis French in relation to; as compared with (literally ‘face-to-face’)
vox populi Latin public opinion (literally ‘the voice of the people’)
zeitgeist German the characteristic spirit or mood of a particular historical period (literally ‘time spirit’)

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