From French to English:

Surprising Etymology


We all know that if there is one common characteristic among languages, it is their permeability.  Languages are like sponges. Foreign elements have crept in into each of them, sometimes for so many centuries that we no longer can recognize the foreign implant. French and English in particular have enjoyed such intimate relations that we can follow their history, which resembles a long love story between the most Latin of the Germanic languages, English that is, and French, the most Germanic of the Romance Languages.


We also know that English has greatly borrowed from French. Do I need to mention the Norman conquest that introduced the Anglo-Norman language to the Court of England (whose motto remains today Dieu et mon droit i.e. My God-given right) 


There are in English a whole series of words that still bear their Anglo-Norman origin, marked with an initial “w”, whereas Modern French is now written with a hard “g”. Here are some examples:


wafer                          gaufrette

wage                          gages

war                             guerre

to waste                     gâter (to spoil) & gaspiller (to waste)

warrant                      garantie                     > guaranty

warden                      gardien                      > guardian


You see in the last two examples that later English borrowings no longer retained the Norman “w” but the Modern French mark, the “g”. Thus next to warrant, we also have guaranty, the same as we have guardian in addition to warden. You’ve noticed that the silent “u” in guaranty or in guardian has remained as a witness of French borrowing .



to end             to finish

to feed            to nourish

to fight           to combat

to shun           to avoid

to win             to gain

folk                 people

inner               interior

might             power

wish                desire

hazy               vague

hearty            cordial

loving             amorous

raw                 crude


With the Norman occupation new trades had developed in England. From the following 14 words, five (5) have an Anglo-Norman origin. Which are they?

















butcher from boucher, carpenter from charpentier, mason from maçon, painter from peintre, and tailor from tailleur are of Anglo-Norman origin. Incidentally did you know that, in French, the original occupation of the boucher seems to have been the slaying of he-goats. An old French ordinance states that the bocher “shall not cast the blood of goats in public ways, nor slaughter the goats in the streets.” In the word joiner, (modern French, menuisier) there is the connotation of the craftsman joining together pieces of wood. The same as the English word tailor stands for French tailleur, the patronymic Bollinger stands for boulanger  (baker). You’ve recognized in Bollinger and boulanger the word boule, (the shape of the bread and the etymology of the word boulanger, the maker of boules of bread.


You know that etymology is the study of the origin, formation, and development of a word; another term borrowed from Old French (OF) from the Greek etumon, i.e. the literal sense of a word, its original form. Although you already know that English has heavily borrowed from French, you may be surprised, for instance, to learn that


1.              To attest comes directly from attester, from Latin ad-testari, to be witness, a verb originating in the word testis, witness. If we go back to the origin of testis, we find the Indo-European stem *tre-tri, which we have in both the Romance and Germanic languages, i.e. in the Latin tres and in tres, tre, três, three, drei, etc.  A witness is that third person who can testify in a conflict opposing two other people. In a totally different domain, to the same testis Latin was added a diminutive, -ulus, which gave the word… testiculus = “little witness”… to the virility of man?, which doesn’t need any translation in either language.


Paulo majora canamus. “Let us chant higher things.”


The Latin tres gave also trivial, from trivialis  < “of the three ways,” which you can paraphrase as the modern gossip at the water cooler, or as the crossroad where prostitutes waited for their customers or the spot where the women would meet and chat on the way back from market.


2. boudoir       (a woman’s bedroom), comes from the French word bouder (to pout). In the Middle Ages, for “time out”, a young lady was sent to her boudoir to get over the sulks. So a lady’s boudoir is really her pouting-room.


3. corset         (a little body). This word is a diminutive of the OF word cors, “body,” and it is quite proper that it is a diminutive, for a corset is supposed to make a body smaller. The OF word cors, which comes from the Latin corpus, gave in French corpulent, later borrowed by English, a condition that a corset should help correct.


4. coward       came originally from the latin cauda (tail), but it came into English from the OF word couard. The little hare in the Old French fables of Reynard the Fox was named Coart, and his most salient characteristic was its timidity. So apparently a coward is one who turns tail and runs.


5. curfew       comes from the the OF word cuevrefeu, “a covering of the fire”.  Thus, in the Middle Ages there was a regulation that fires had to be covered and people had to be home and off the street by a certain time.


6. dandelion comes from the OF word dent de lion (tooth of the lion).  Probably because of its diuretic property, it is commonly called in French pissenlit, literally “piss in bed.” Another verb borrowed from French, the origin of which is unknown. On the other hand, diuretic comes from Greek  dia = through + ourein = to urinate.


7. to flatter    comes from the OF flater (to caress with the hand). Praising people with a lot of wonderful, if untrue, words is like stroking them the way we pet a cat or dog.


8. puppy        Middle English popi(e), which corresponds in form to OF popée, Modern French poupée, i.e doll, a toy, a plaything.


9. puny           literally “born later.” The word is directly from the 12th-century French puisné, from puis, “later”, and “born,” and its meaning “of small growth” or “weak” simply refers to the fact that babies and younger children “born later” have less strength than the older ones. You’ll notice how the two words are almost identical in sound: puisné – puny.


10. zest           comes from the French word zeste (lemon or orange peel). If you add lemon peel to food, it gives extra flavor, in the same way as enthusiasm adds enjoyment to life.





Here are a 10 words all related to food or cooking. Can you guess the corresponding English word?

1. Latin alere, “to nourish”. Two English words coming from alere, meaning to nourish, to supply with food, are: aliment, and from alimonia, (nutriment, support) came also alimony, etymologically “eating money.”


2. Aztec ahuactl, Spanish aguacate. The native Mexican name was ahuactl, which really meant “testicle.” This spelling was a little hard for the Spanish tongue to handle, so they smoothed it off to avocado, which is in French as well, the name for an advocate (French avocat) or lawyer. Another name for avocado in English is “alligator pear,” which is a perfect example of folk etymology:  the Persea Americana trees are said to grow in places infested with alligators.


3. OF bescuit (mod. biscuit). Pronounce the word in French: biscuit < twice baked < bis + coctus, (past participle of coquere, to cook).


4. OF boudin (in modern French boudin = blood sausage) originally meant a sausage-like preparation made with animal’s stomach or intestine stuffed with meat. The mispronounced French boudin gave, in Middle English, poding, puddyng, the sweet dessert that we call in English pudding. Take this as an example of perfect culinary misunderstanding between the two countries.


5. Old Provençal croustado, which was a kind a pie baked in a oven, gave Middle English crustade, which evolved – in philology, lazyness oblige – into custard; a second example of culinary misundersanding!


6. OF cabouche, meaning head, modern familiar French caboche, close to Spanish cabeza, gave the word cabbage, which is what a cabbage sometimes looks like.


7. OF chaudière gave our famous New England chowder. Here is a quote from Wilfred Funk’s book, Word Origins and their Romantic Stories “In the little villages of Brittany, on the northwestern coast of France, it has long been the custom for each fisherman to toss a bit of his catch into a common mess of fish and biscuit that cooks in a community pot or chaudière. This dish was so good that its fame spread to Newfoundland and so to the east coast of the United States, and the name of the pot was soon applied to the contents, and the spelling chaudière was restyled as chowder.” (p. 187)


8. OF pocher, gave the word poach, i.e. “in a pocket.”When you poach an egg you are cooking the yolk in a “bag” or “pocket” of white.  Poach is from the OF pocher, “to enclose in a bag,” which is derived from poche, a “bag” or “poke.” Here’s where we get the old saying “buying a pig in a poke.”


9. OF saisonner > seasoning. The primary meaning of saisonner was “to render palatable by the influence of the seasons: that is, by letting fruit ripen until it is tasty. Right in line with seasoning, our words sauce, salad, and sausage come from the Latin term salsus which means “salted,” for they needed “salt’ to make the grade.


10. OF vyn egre >  vinegar is nothing more than “sour wine”.



Word Origins & their Romantic Stories. Wilfred Funk, Funk & Wagnalls, 1950.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. T.F. Hoad, Oxford University Press,1986.


Histoires de mots: Étymologies européennes. Louis-Jean Calvet, Paris: Payot, 1993.


L’aventure des langues en occident: Leur origine, leur histoire, leur géographie.

Henriette Walter, Paris: Laffont, 1994.






“Our hundreds of French etymology resources are of several kinds. I have grouped those treating a group of words with those that discuss aspects of etymology in one section, and those focusing on a single word in another. They are of uneven scientific value and quality, some written for popular consumption, some to illustrate a particular kind of origin, while others are very complete articles, replete with examples of early use. This page is appropriately attached to Globe-Gate's Une Histoire de la langue française @ Globe-Gate .”



Etymologically speaking: “What follows is a list of some curious word origins. Some of these are English, but some are French and German words from which we get some English words.”



Wilton's Etymology Page (from America to Yankee) 



Melanie & Mike say “Take Our Word for it”- the Weekly Word-origin Webzine


                                                                                    Joseph E. Garreau, Ph.D.

                                                                                                                                                               Professor of French

                                                                                    Department of Languages