common foreign words in english

Common Foreign Words in English

Common Foreign Words in English List A to Z

ADDucation’s list of common foreign words in English wasn’t easy to put together. English started as a Germanic language. Add a generous helping of old Norse from the Vikings. Lace it with Norman French and Latin constructions. Add thousands of words anglicized from other languages and the result is English is we know it today. “Loanwords” are words borrowed from another language and used “as is”. Whether your audience will understand the meaning of common foreign words is up to you. Foreign phrases in English are often italicized so they are easier to spot.

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Common foreign words Source language Entomology / Origin / Meaning Trivia / Comments / Usage
addenda Latin A list of additions.
ad lib Latin Improvised. One of the most common foreign words used to describe actors and politicians who go off-piste.
ad hoc Latin For a particular purpose.
ad infinitum Latin To infinity.
à la carte French 🇫🇷 From the menu.
ad nauseam Latin To the point of nausea, to a sickening degree. Trevor talked ad nauseam about his career.
addenda Latin A list of additions.
aficionado Spanish 🇪🇸 An ardent fan.
agent provocateur French 🇫🇷 Agent who incites others to illegal action. Agent Provocateur is also a luxury lingerie brand name.
alcohol
Arabic Originally “al-kuḥl” ancient Egyptian eyeliner, later any fine powder or distilled spirit or essence. Alcoholic beverages include beers, wines and spirits.
alfresco Italian 🇮🇹 Fresh air, outdoors.
alma mater Latin Former school (Latin “bountiful mother”). My alma mater is the university of life, which does not award degrees.
alter ego Latin Second self.
angst German 🇩🇪 Dread, anxiety.
ars gratia artis Latin Art for art’s sake. MGM’s Leo the lion’s head is inside a garland of film with the motto “Ars Gratia Artis“.
au fait French 🇫🇷 Familiar with something (French “to the point”).
au naturel French 🇫🇷 Natural state, naked.
avant-garde French 🇫🇷 Unorthodox, experimental (French “front guard”).
avatar
Hindi Icon or representation of a person online. You can often change your avatar on websites and in computer games.
baksheesh Persian Tip (Persian “gift”).
ballet French 🇫🇷 Form of dance. From earlier latin ballare “to dance”. French is the language of ballet, e.g. tutu and ballerina.
bete noire French 🇫🇷 Personal annoyance, bugbear (French “black beast”).
blitzkrieg German 🇩🇪 Sudden overwhelming attack (German “lightning war”).
bon appétit French 🇫🇷 Enjoy your meal (French “good appetite). One of the most common foreign words in English, probably because we don’t have an English equivalent.
bon vivant French 🇫🇷 Lover of good life.
bon voyage French 🇫🇷 Have a nice trip. We wished Natasha bon voyage as she left to go traveling.
bona fide Latin In good faith, genuine. John’s doctor was a bona fide expert in dementia.
bravura Italian 🇮🇹 Performed with energy and skill.
cafe French 🇫🇷 From coffee in many languages, one of the most common foreign words. Cafés usually serve coffee.
carpe diem Latin Seize the day. Made famous by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society.
carpe noctem
Latin Seize the night (this is not really in very common usage, but we loved the concept of seizing the night instead of the day!).
carte blanche French 🇫🇷 Complete freedom, unlimited authority (French “white card”). Ron was given carte blanche to choose a new truck.
sus belli Latin Pretext or reason that justifies or allegedly justifies an attack of war.
caveat emptor Latin Let the buyer beware. Item sold as seen, caveat emptor.
chow Chinese 🇨🇳 Food, “chow down” means to eat. Many Chinese words used in English relate to food.
chutzpah Yiddish Gall, audacity.
cojones Spanish 🇪🇸 Testicles, balls, guts.
cordon bleu French 🇫🇷 Food cooked to high standard (French “blue ribbon”).
corpus delecti Latin The evidence required to prove a crime has been committed.
coup de grace French 🇫🇷 A blow of mercy.
cul-de-sac French 🇫🇷 Dead end (French “bottom of the sack”).
de facto French 🇫🇷 Actual.
de rigueur French 🇫🇷 Obligatory.
déjà vu French 🇫🇷 Sense of having already experienced something (French “already seen”).
derrière French 🇫🇷 Behind, bum, bottom, buttocks.
deus ex machine Latin God of the machine.
doppelgänger German 🇩🇪 Ghostly counterpart of a living person (German “double-goer”).
double entendre French 🇫🇷 Double meaning.
droit du seigneur French 🇫🇷 Excessive demands on subordinate. Literally “the lord’s right” to take the virginity of a new bride.
élan French 🇫🇷 Flair.
enfant terrible French 🇫🇷 A bad child.
en masse French 🇫🇷 In a large group. The crowd voted with their feet and left en masse.
entrepreneur French 🇫🇷 Businessman. From 19th century “entreprendre”, a director of a musical institution. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are famous entrepreneurs.
ersatz German 🇩🇪 A substitute.
fait accompli French 🇫🇷 An established fact. Losing the vote for president was a fait accompli.
fata morgana Italian 🇮🇹 A striking mirage.
fatwa Arabic A legal opinion expressed by Islamic leader.
faux pas French 🇫🇷 Breach of social etiquette, social blunder (French “false step”) or mistake. Wearing a long white dress as a wedding guest was a faux pas.
femme fatale French 🇫🇷 Highly attractive woman who means trouble.
fiasco Italian 🇮🇹 Disaster.
force de frappe French 🇫🇷 France’s nuclear deterrent (French “superiour force”).
gauntlet / gantlet Swedish 🇸🇪 Swedish (gatlopp “lane course running”). The pronunciation in English was corrupted to “gauntlet” (French gantelet “armored glove”). Running the gauntlet (UK) or gantlet (US) was a form of punishment where the victim was forced to run between two rows of torturers. “Throw down the gauntlet” is to issue a challenge and “take up the gauntlet” accepts the challenge.
gemütlich German 🇩🇪 Cosy.
gestalt German 🇩🇪 Form, shape.
gesundheit German 🇩🇪 Health, bless you.
glasnost Russian 🇷🇺 Ppenness (Russian “publicity”).
glitch Yiddish A minor fault, bug, gremlin etc. (Yiddish “gletshn” to slide or skid) or (German “glitschen” to slip). Neo experienced déjà vu as “a glitch in the matrix” when he saw the same black cat walk past a door twice.
grand mal French 🇫🇷 Epilepsy attack (French “large illness”).
gringo Spanish 🇪🇸 Foreigner (mainly Mexican).
gung-ho Chinese 🇨🇳 Enthusiasm, zealous (Chinese “work together”) Adopted as a battle cry by some military units.
guru Hindi Spiritual leader.
habeas corpus Latin (Latin “You should have the body”) protection against unlawful imprisonment.
halal Arabic Meat slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law (Arabic “lawful”).
hoi polloi Greek 🇬🇷 Rabble.
in flagrante delicto Latin Caught in the act (Latin “with the crime still blazing”).
in loco parentis Latin A guardian, in place of a parent.
in vino veritas Latin Truth is in wine.
ipso facto Latin By the fact itself. “A teacher, ipso facto, is in charge of his or her class.” A chef, ipso facto, is in charge of a kitchen.
joie de vivre French 🇫🇷 Joy of life.
kamikaze Japanese 🇯🇵 Suicidal attack. Japanese common foreign words used in English are rare.
karaoke Japanese 🇯🇵 Singing to a backing track (Japanese “empty orchestra”).
kitsch German 🇩🇪 Rubbish, bad taste.
la dolce vita Italian 🇮🇹 The good life.
laissez faire French 🇫🇷 Policy of non interference.
lingua franca Italian 🇮🇹 Common language.
macho Spanish 🇪🇸 Arrogant masculine man (Spanish/Portuguese machismo “manly”). Randy Savage and the Village People spring to mind.
mea culpa Latin My fault.
modus operandi Latin Method of procedure, method of operating (commonly abbreviated to M.O.). The suspect followed the same M.O.
moped Swedish 🇸🇪 (Swedish motor och pedaler “pedal cycle with engine and wheels” ) One of only a handful of common foreign words from Swedish.
noblesse oblige French 🇫🇷 Nobility obliges.
nom de plume French 🇫🇷 Pen name. Commonly used by writers to preserve their anonymity.
non sequitur Latin Something that doesn’t follow on logically.
off-piste French 🇫🇷 Skiing in areas unprepared for skiing. Off the beaten track. One of the common foreign words that make English fun. Used to describe actors and politicians who do not follow to their scripts or anything unexpected.
persona non grata Latin Unwelcome or unacceptable person. Sally was a persona non grata in our club because she wouldn’t follow the rules.
piece de résistance French 🇫🇷 Special food dish or outstanding item or event.
poltergeist German 🇩🇪 A ghost that moves objects around or causes loud noises (German “noisy ghost”).
prima donna Latin A temperamental and conceited person. Sophie found it hard to make friends because she was considered to a prima donna.
prima facie Latin At first view.
pro bono Latin Donated or done without charge. The lawyer took the case on a pro bono basis.
pro forma Latin Done for the sake of form.
pro rata Latin Proportionally according to a factor.
pro tempore Latin For the time being.
punch Hindi Originally “paantsch” an alcoholic drink made of five ingredients; sugar, lemon, alcohol, water, spices or tea. Punch is a popular party drink served from a large punch bowl.
pundit
Hindi An expert, critic or commentator on a specific subject. Punditry, by pundits, analyze sports, express opinions in the media, critique theater, food etc.
quid pro quo Latin Something for something else, often a fair exchange, sometimes used in sexual harassment cases. Ron gave me his candy bar as quid pro quo for my soft drink.
quod erat demonstratum Latin As demonstrated (“Q.E.D.”).
raison d’être
French 🇫🇷 Reason for being.
rendezvous French 🇫🇷 Agree to meet, meeting.
safari Swahili A journey, expedition.
saffron
Arabic A spice, originally from “za‘farān” then later old french “safran”. Saffron is the most expensive spice and food on Earth – but a little goes a long way.
salaam Arabic Peace from (al)-salām. Salaam alei·kum “peace be upon you” is a greeting used by Muslims.
sang froid French 🇫🇷 Cold blood.
savoir-faire French 🇫🇷 Knowledge of what to do.
schadenfreude German 🇩🇪 Taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.
shampoo
Hindi Massage, rub (Hindustani “chāmpo” to press). Humans, animals, cars and furniture can all be shampooed.
sine qua non Latin Indispensable (Latin “without which not”).
smorgasbord Swedish 🇸🇪 Sandwich or buffet with variety of dishes or situation with many choices. See also moped and gauntlet.
soupçon French 🇫🇷 Hint of (French “suspicion”).
status quo Latin Existing state or condition. Hannah didn’t like change and preferred to maintain the status quo. Also a famous rock band.
tempus fugit Latin Time flies.
tête-à-tête French 🇫🇷 A private conversation (French “head to head”).
tour de force French 🇫🇷 A feat of strength.
tsunami Japanese 🇯🇵 A large tidal wave (Japanese “harbor wave”). More Japanese words used in English…
tycoon Japanese 🇯🇵 Business leader (from Japanese “taikun” meaning “high commander”). The 72 year-old tycoon was one of America’s most generous philanthropists.
uber / über German 🇩🇪 Very, max, possessing property to an extreme (German “over”).
vendetta Italian 🇮🇹 Private revenge feud among families of murdered persons.
veni, vidi, vici Latin I came, I saw, I conquered.
verboten German 🇩🇪 Forbidden.
vis-à-vis French 🇫🇷 As compared with
wunderkind German 🇩🇪 Boy wonder, someone succeeding at an early age (German “wonder child”).
zeitgeist German 🇩🇪 Spirit of the times.

If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers Doug Larson

This common foreign words used in English list was compiled by A C, last updated 20 Jun 2020.
Please help us add examples to this list of common foreign words by adding your comments below…

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