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Copyright © 2002-2007, 2020 by David E. Ross
Many writers like to use foreign terms because such use implies a higher level of learning and literacy. That implication is destroyed when a term is used improperly; then, we can only infer ignorance and illiteracy. Of course, a foreign term should be spelled correctly — the way it would be by a native writer of that language, including properly accented letters. Only if the language does not customarily use the Latin alphabet may a transliteration be used.
In general, a foreign term that is not customarily recognized as a common part of English should be Italicized if the presentation supports Italics. (In English, the word Italics and its derivatives are capitalized because they derived from Italy, the name of a nation. Similarly, we capitalize Americanization.)
A good reference for foreign terms is C. O. Sylvester Mawson's Dictionary of Foreign Terms. My copy is an edition (1975) that was revised and updated by Charles Berlitz of the famous Berlitz language schools.
- au jus
- with the [natural] juice [French]
Note that au means with. Thus, when a serving of roast beef is described as "with au jus", it means with with its own natural gravy. The obvious rule is never put with in front of au. Restaurants that put "with au jus" on their menus pretend to be far more elegant than they really are.
- c'est la guerre
- that is war [French]; figuratively that is what happens in war
Sometimes, this phrase is used figuratively, applying to political, personal, or other non-physical battles.
I saw a story in which this was c'est la gere, but my French-English dictionary does not show such a word as gere. If you use a foreign term, at least spell it correctly.
- chaise longue
- long chair [French]
While this couch-like chair is used for lounging, it is not a lounge. While the two are similar, you actually sit up on a chaise longue but lie down on a lounge.
- hat [French]
I saw this word in a story where it was a malaprop for chateau.
- castle, rural mansion [French]
The plural is chateaux.
- cul de sac
- bottom of the bag [French]; thus, a dead-end street.
Written without hyphenation. Definitely not clu-de-sac.
- ¿Como está?
- How are you? [Spanish greeting], an acceptable shortening of ¿Como está usted?.
Not come esta. Come is Italian; but in the context where this appeared, the phase was used to address two Hispanic individuals. (Actually, the question should have been ¿Como están? or ¿Como están ustedes? to make it plural.)
This is a question and requires at least a question mark at the end, even if you can't create the inverted question mark at the beginning.
Note that comó (with an accent) is Spanish for I eat. The accent is wrong in that word but needed for está. Without the accent, esta means this. Thus ¿Comó esta? means I eat this?
- déjà vu
- seen before [French]; a feeling that what someone is seeing or experiencing happened before even if it did not.
Knowing how to write a foreign term is as important as knowing how to use it. I read a story in which this term was correctly used twice, but the author (possibly not knowing how to spell it) wrote it as d,j… vu. At least, that is what I saw on my computer monitor. Of course, this might have been the result of trying to use escaped characters or character references, which do not always appear as intended (see Writing for the Internet).
- Die Zauberflöte
- The Magic Flute [German]; name of an opera by Mozart
Not Die Sauberflota.
- faux pas
- false step [French]; figuratively, a social blunder.
While the pronounciation is close to foe-paw, that is not how this is spelled.
- maître d'hôtel
- master of the hotel [French]
This is often shortened to maître d' when referring to the floor manager of a restaurant. Even then, however, the proper term is still maître d'hôtel, possibly because restaurants employing such a position were originally found in hotels.
- ménage à trois
- household of three [French]; figuratively, a three-way romantic relationship
not menage a' toi
- mucho, muy
- much, very [Spanish]
Thus, the correct "Spanglish" phrase would be muy angry, not mucho angry.
- naivety [French]
If you want to use the French spelling, you must do it completely. Don't use naiveté (with an unmarked i). It is definitely not naivetè, which has the wrong accent on the final e.
- chewed paper [French]
Papier-mâché is a pulp of paper that may be formed into various shapes and is sometimes used as a cheap substitute for plaster in making figurines.
A machete [Spanish] is a large knife with a broad blade, often used to cut sugar cane. A paper machete would not be able to cut anything.
- passed [French]; in reference to a feminine noun: passée
This word has entered the English language to mean from a prior time, antiquated, or old fashioned, reflecting French ideomatic usage. Even in English, it is always spelled with an accented é. The English language, not assigning genders to nouns, only uses the masculine passé.
- prix fixe
- fixed price [French]
This is usually found on a menu and means that all choices from the menu have the same price (definitely not pre-fixe).
- shish kebab
- skewered or spitted meat [Turkish] (where spitted refers to a barbecue spit, not saliva)
Shish is derived from Turkish şiş meaning skewer or spit, and kebab is an derived from Turkish kebap meaning roast meat. I cringe when I see something like "fruit kebob", intendeing to mean "fruit on a skewer" but really meaning "fruited roast meat" but with kebab misspelled.
- tai chi chuan (sometimes shortened to tai chi), also tai ji quan
- unarmed combat [Chinese]
This term is now used to describe an exercise based on the unarmed-combat principles. Thai chi is not an alternative; Thai means free people in the Siamese language and is not Chinese at all.
- touched [French]
In fencing, a touch of a sword on the opponent's body is worth a point. Thus, touché has come to mean a score or a point, often used figuratively in verbal fencing and spoken by the person against whom the point was scored. Merely saying touch is wrong since the correct term would be touched. However, even touched is wrong when the meaning is you win.
Last updated 24 August 2020