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A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi"
The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English

By Cloe Rhodes

Subject: Bestselling I Used to Know That Series
Hardcover | 176 pages | 5 3/8 x 8
US$14.95 | CAN$15.95
Publication Date: 2010-03-04
ISBN: 9781606520574
If you don’t know the meaning of “à la carte, ” “amuse-bouche, ” or soup “du jour, ” you might be missing out on a great meal—or risk committing a major “faux pas. ” Organized alphabetically for easy reference, A Certain “ Je Ne Sais Quoi”is an accessible lexicon of foreign words and phrases used in English, containing everything from aficionado (Spanish) to zeitgeist (German). Inside you’ll find translations, definitions, origins, and a descriptive timeline of each item’s evolution.

Entries include:
  • À la carte: from the card or of the menu (French)
  • Fiasco: complete failure (Italian)
  • Dungarees: thick cotton cloth/overalls (Hindi)
  • Diaspora: dispersion (Greek)
  • Smorgasbord: bread and butter (Swedish)
  • Cognoscenti: those who know (Italian)
  • Compos mentis: having mastery of one’s mind; with it (Latin)


Attractively packaged with black and white illustrations, this whimsical yet authoritative book is a great gift for any etymologically fascinated individual. Use this book to reacquaint yourself with the English language, and you’ll be “compos mentis” in no time.

Make this a permanent fixture on your eReader, and you’ll have instant access to searchable knowledge. Whether you need homework help or want to win that trivia game, this series is the trusted source for fun facts.

“I love LOVE books like this. This is actually one that I want to keep handy so when I start my English classes I will have something to use. It would make a great handy book also if you are a writer and are constantly looking up synonyms! So if you know a writer or a teacher, this would be perfect! ” — Geek Girl Reviews (Blog)

Cocktail Party Advice From A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Picture this scenario: You’ re having a tete-a tete with an old friend from your alma mater, who is a wine aficionado. So you pick an al fresco table at a chic little cafe, and order from the a la carte menu. However, your companion won’ t stop exchanging double entendres with the woman in the sarong at the next table. So you’ re stuck listening to the klutz of a waiter droning on ad nauseam about the soup du jour. At that point, you're ready to say hasta la vista,but you don’ t want to seem like a diva.

Try to say all that in English. You probably wouldn’ t change a single word. How else would you describe such a scene if it weren’ t for the thousands of foreign words and phrases we’ ve snuck into our conversations over the years? We all use them without a second thought. But how much do you really know about the origins of the borrowed words and phrases you use every day?

Did you know, for example, that when you place an order for apple pie a la mode, that you are using a phrase that dates back to the days of King Louis XIV? His court became such a standard of good taste that the British aristocracy wanted to do more than dress in French fashion; they wanted to use their phrase for it, too. In the seventeenth century the term was anglicized to become alamode—a light silk used to make scarves. And at some point in small-town America, the combined flavors of cooked apple, sweet pastry, and cool, creamy vanilla represented the very latest in fashionable, cutting-edge gastronomy, giving the term its modern meaning of “ with ice cream. ” And there’ s hundreds of other examples from France: laissez faire, joie de vivre, fait accompli, faux pas, I could go on but you’ d only become blase. And with good reason; English speakers have been word collectors since the fifth century, when the dialects of Anglo-Saxon settlers, Celts, and Norse invaders were cobbled together to create Old English. When the Norman conquerors arrived in 1066 it must have seemed natural to steal some of their vocabulary, too. By the end of the thirteenth century, more than 10,000 French words were absorbed into English, and we still use 75 percent of them today.

But we’ ve done more than add a French lilt to our lingo. Those Normans also introduced us to Latin. In medicine, we have words like post-mortem and placebo, while in legal language, Latin phrases such as in camera and quid pro quo are still bounced around the courtroom. And others have crossed over into broader use; an agreement or contract signed in good faith is said to be bona fide. However, in everyday use, the phrase has become interchangeable with the word genuine and usually describes someone or something whose authenticity can be trusted.

More foreign phrases joined the fray during the marauding, seafaring days of our English-speaking ancestors, who filled their boats with strange Asian spices, exotic fabrics, and loads of new words for all the animals, garments and foods they had discovered.

Even ketchup, that favorite sidekick of French fries, is an import, starting life as a spicy pickled fish sauce in seventeenth-century China. The word is a Westernized version of the Malay word kichap, which came from koechiap, meaning fish brine. The sweet red version we love with began to take shape when American sailors added tomatoes, which are excellent for preventing scurvy. In 1876 John Heinz launched his infamous tomato ketchup and the rest, as they say, is history.

And there are stowaway words in your wardrobe as well as your pantry; your pajamas, dungarees, and even your bandanna have their origins on foreign shores. Bandanna comes from the Sanskrit word bandhana, meaning to tie, from the tie-dying technique used to decorate scarves and handkerchiefs in India. The anglicized “ bandanna” was incorporated into the English language during the days of the British Raj, though they're now more popular with wrestlers and cowboys who want to give their look a certain panache.

And while the Brits went abroad to gather additions for their dictionary, in seventeenth century North America, words were coming to the English language by the boatload. Soon words from Italy, Poland, German, and Eastern Europe were leaping off immigrant ships and landing in the American English lexicon. To uncover the backstory on some of these, from alter ego to zeitgeist, explore the pages of A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi, The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English by Chloe Rhodes, published by Reader’ s Digest, and voila! Soon you’ ll easily be able to schmooze with everyone at the next cocktail party without making a single faux pas.

Author:

photo Chloe Rhodes is a freelance journalist who has worked for The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times as well as numerous other respected publications. She lives in North London with her husband.