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French Mottos & Phrases

written by: allychevalier • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 1/20/2012

A little French can go a long ways, especially when it comes to all those fun little phrases and quips that crop up commonly in English daily conversation. Read this article and learn some of these sayings today.

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    A Note On Pronunciation

    You might have heard these French sayings before—and probably learned the Anglicized pronunciation. From unrolled rs to over articulation and pronouncing that unpronounced consonant, there's just not a whole lot of authenticity to the pronunciation when you're not in France. In fact, if you pronounce many of these correctly to English speakers, even ones that are familiar with the phrase, they won't understand what you're saying! Some of the more difficult ones below have a rough English pronunciation guide to help.

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    Mottos

    Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. No phrase is more important to the country of France than this, especially considering it's the national motto. It translates to “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood," which are the foundations of the Constitution of the Republic of France.

    C'est la vie. Usually translated to “such is life" as a sign of resignation towards the harshness of life. Literally, “it is the life." Roughly pronounced like "Say la vee."

    Chacun le sien. This can best be translated as “To each, his own."

    Joie de vivre. “Joy of life." Pronounced something like "Jwah de veevr."

    Cœur fidèle. “A faithful heart." This often finds itself referenced in various pieces of literature. Pronounced about like "cur feedehl."

    L’amour et l’amitié. “Love and friendship." What more could you want?

    N'oubliez. “Don't forget." Variations on this may be found with a variety of historically-charged political groups, as with its synonym, souvenez, “remember." The "z" is not pronounced, so make sure to say "noobliay", not "noubliez."

    Vérité sans peur. “Truth without fear."

    French mottos are an endless subject, especially when it comes to Medieval Age France and les chevaliers. Check out this great resource for the mottos of many feudal age families in France.

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    Phrases

    Coup d'état. This phrase is often used to describe the overthrow of a government by force. Think of all those rapid changes of government in many Latin American and African countries. Literally “cutting" or “blow of state." Pronounced like "coo daytah."

    Coup de grâce. This is used to describe any kind of mercy killing in a variety of literal and metamorphic senses. English speakers tend to mispronounce this one a fair bit: as with the above, the "p" in "coup" is left silent, so pronounce about it "cou duh grahs."

    Crème de la crème. This is about the same of the “cream of the crop" idiom in English, literally translating to “cream of the cream."

    Esprit de corps. This phrase is used to express camaraderie amongst people, usually in the context of the military. Literally “spirit of the body." The end bit on "corps" is left silent, so say this as "espreet deh cohr."

    Fait accompli. This little phrase is used to describe something that has already happened without any chance to reverse it. This literally translates to “accomplished fact." The "t" of "fait" carries over because of the vowel beginning "accompli", so pronounce this more like one word: "fehtakohmplee."

    Laissez-faire. This phrase has been used since Colonial times to refer to a policy of “let be" when it comes to economics, allowing unhindered free trade and other practices with little or no government involvement. As with previous examples, the "ez" is not pronounced, leaving it as "lahzay-fayr."

    Tête-à-tête. Literally “head to head." Slightly less painfully, this idiomatically is used to refer to close, intimate conversations.

    Tour de force. This is used to refer to exactly what it sounds like: a tour of force, a feat of strength.

    Vis-à-vis. Translated somewhat roughly as “seeing to seeing", this phrase is used to mean “face to face." Because of the vowel sandwiched between two consonants, try to pronounce this somewhat slurred, more like one word: "veezavee."

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    Exclamations

    Au contraire! To the contrary! Say it like "Oh contrayr!"

    Bon appétit! Good appetite! Said before a meal to encourage good eating.

    Enchanté. Exactly what it looks like: enchanted. This is usually used in an introduction, especially to a belle. The "ch" sound is soft, not hard, more like our own "sh."

    J'accuse! I accuse! This is occasionally used by someone making a grand accusation towards another.

    Mais oui! But yes! This is often used as a sort of sarcastic agreement in arguments. Think of this like "May we!"

    Tout de suite! Literally “everything follow,!" but used for more of an “immediately!" or a “at once!" This slurs together a bit colloquially, so pronounce it like "Toot sweet!"

    Vive la France! Or insert any country or personage of your choice instead of France. This is quite similar to the English “Long live the [insert noun here] !"

    Voilà! There it is! There you go! Think of some sort of grand revealing or revelation.

    For a great general list of French words in the English language, check out Wikipedia.

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