French Vocabulary: Fake French Words to Know

Salut !

Have you ever wondered if French fries are actually French? What about the French manicure — did it actually originate in France? Do houses in France have “French windows”? And what about the French-sounding expressions that we sometimes use in English, like Maitre d’? Do French people use them, too?

It may surprise you that some of these words and expressions are rarely or never used by French people — and when YOU use them, it makes it very obvious that you’re a tourist or a non-native French speaker.

In today’s lesson, I want to give you some examples of these “fake” French words, and give you some proper French vocabulary to replace them so you can sound more authentically French.

C’est parti.

1) “French” words in English that aren’t used in France
2) Stereotypically “French” words that aren’t used in French
3) “French” things that aren’t actually called “French” in France
4) Things that have a “nationality” in France but not in other countries

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1) “French” words in English that aren’t used in France

Brunette doesn’t really exist in France. We say brun / brune (= black-haired.)

  • Un garçon brun. = A black-haired guy.
  • Une fille brune. = A black-haired girl.
  • Des cheveux bruns. = Dark hair
  • Une bière brune. = A dark beer.

It’s close to:

  • Des cheveux châtains = Brown hair
  • Un garçon châtain / Une fille châtain = Brown-haired guy/girl (same word in masculine and feminine)

Also, Maître d’ is very weird for a French person.
It means “master of” – but with no indication of what, except that it starts with a vowel or a silent “h,” since “de” (= “of”) becomes “d’” only before one of those. In French, you never see d’ by itself, without something after it.

However, you can say:

  • Un maître d’hôtel = “Master of hotel” = Head waiter at a restaurant
  • Le directeur (la directrice) d’hôtel = A hotel manager

All in all, though, you’re allowed to borrow French-sounding words to mean something in another language. God knows we do it in French too!

Like un jogging (= a track suit) and more!

Click here to learn more:
Fitness in France

2) Stereotypically “French” words that aren’t used in French

However, some words are used as stereotypical examples of “French words” so you might find it useful to use them in France. Except… They’re not actually used in modern French!

Sacrebleu is a very old-fashioned swear word that nobody uses non-ironically anymore. Instead you can use:

  • Mince ! = “Slim!” (literally)
  • Purée ! = “Mashed potatoes!” (literally)
  • Zut ! = Oops ! / Oh no !

All three of these are mild swear words when something is frustrating or goes wrong, like “Shoot!”

Bien fait too isn’t used like you might think it is. It’s a taunt, an insult towards someone, when something bad happened to them but you feel that they deserved it: “Serves you right!” For praise, use Bravo ! or Super ! instead, for example.

Same thing with Mon ami (= literally “my friend.”) We do use it in a sentence like “J’attends mon ami.” (= I’m waiting for my friend) but never really as an address, like “Ah mon ami ! Oui, mon ami !” etc. It would sound old-fashioned and too emphatic.

Click on the links to learn more:

Technically, we do use “Bien fait” for a good thing… When it’s in a full sentence.

Ce dessin est bien fait. = This drawing is well done.
Ce fromage est bien fait. = This cheese is old, well-aged.

But on its own, just “Bien fait !”, it’s basically always a taunt!

3) “French” things that aren’t actually called “French” in France

French fries = Les frites. (= “fried” literally. Feminine noun.)
→ There’s an ongoing rivalry between Belgium and Northern France over who actually created the French fries. So I can’t say for sure that they’re French.

French beans (green beans) = Les haricots verts
→ These come from America and got popular all across Europe. They got called “French beans” in English in the XIXth century, probably because of English people discovering French cuisine. It’s a fascinating topic but for another time.

Un haricot (= a bean) begins with “un h aspiré” (= an inhaled “h”), meaning there’s no liaison between “un” and “haricot.” Contrary to “un hôtel” for instance.

French window / French door = Une porte-fenêtre
Une porte (= a door) + une fenêtre (= a window) = a French window
I had no idea these “door-windows” had the slightest French origin. We never call them “fenêtres françaises” or anything.

But actually, it seems that the story behind it is that French kings went from medieval strongholds to Renaissance palaces like Versailles.
Previous fortresses needed to be military defenses, with heavy doors and small windows. But later, for many fascinating reasons that are too long for this blog post, French kings wanted to display their wealth instead with majestic palaces of light and expensive glass and mirrors – which fits perfectly the design of a French window, a door made out of windows.

More surprisingly:
French bread doesn’t exist in France. What’s called “French bread” in the US is usually a type of squishy bread that you can’t find in France. French bread in boulangeries is crispier and crunchier.

But also, of course, there are also plainly too many types of bread in France!

  • La baguette (literally “the wand”)
  • La ficelle (literally “the string”)
  • La boule (literally “the ball”)
  • Le pain de campagne (literally “countryside bread / campaign bread”)
  • La brioche

** Le truc en plus **
Some Types of French Bread
Oh, and of course:
Le pain = “bread”, la douleur = “(being in) pain”!

Oh and, by the way, “French manicure” in France is… “une French manucure,” in a typical mix of French and English here. The manicure technique was names by an American in Hollywood in 1970 – the adjective “French” is pure marketing here.

Speaking of French fries, in French la pomme de terre (= potatoe) means literally “an apple from the ground.” Useful for la purée (= mashed potatoes), remember?

4) Things that have a “nationality” in France but not in other countries

You know, like:
La crème anglaise = “the English cream” = custard
Une cuisine américaine = “an American kitchen” = an open kitchen
Une tente canadienne = “a Canadian tent” = a ridge tent.

→ And not une tante canadienne = “a Canadian aunt.”
The pronunciation is the same though, so be careful of funny/scary misunderstandings! Like:

“Je suis Américaine, mais j’ai une tante canadienne.”
“Oh, moi aussi, dans mon placard !”

Click on the link to learn more French vocabulary:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂

Double your Frenchness! Get my 10-day “Everyday French Crash Course” and learn more spoken French for free. Students love it! Start now and you’ll get Lesson 01 right in your inbox, straight away.

Click here to sign up for my FREE Everyday French Crash Course

Join the conversation!

  • Just a note: I was told that the wide style gowns that French ladies wore created the idea of making double wide doors (French doors). Also the sitting chairs without arms came from this same style since the wide dresses would not fit into a chair with arms. Qui sait?

  • Bonjour Geraldine. Indeed, ‘maitre dee’ used in UK/USA is a very useful expression that sums up the person doing that job in a way that is a bit clumsy or possibly inaccurate in English. A head waiter may not be a ‘maitre dee’. The ‘maitre dee’ may be of superior rank in that establishment.

    French toast! A breakfast favourite! A thick slice of bread, dipped both side in a whisked egg and given a quick zap, flipped in a hot frying pan. Superb spread with marmalade.

    French windows – I really can’t think of an Eng lang synonym.

    Now we get to the most famous Gallicism of all, one that you may have been teased with in your days in Yorkshire, in engineering – The French Letter, as in “Had any French letters lately, Gerry?”

    The French have got their own back on this one with La Capote Anglaise.

  • Another food-related example would be the North American use of “entree” to mean main course, rather than appetiser (which is what the English call them)

  • Today’s lesson made me smile Geraldine,
    and you’re spot on with your descriptions
    of what happens to French words when they
    find their way into the English language .. !
    (btw – I apologise for the lack of accents
    here – I’m doing this on a laptop without the
    alt key etc facility.)

    Native English speakers also abbreviate
    words (ie – resto = restaurant in France), and
    thus maitre d’hotel becomes maitre “dee” in
    English. As for French bread (& I speak as
    one who lives in UK), for goodness sake wait
    until you’re in France, & do not buy it in England –
    French it is not !!

    English, of course, does all sorts of strange
    things with other people’s languages, but for
    some reason your description today of all
    this made me think of the famous Austrian
    actor, and long-time Hollywood resident
    (ex Mr Universe and so forth) who stated
    in an interview that he’d read a Hollywood
    script where speaking German was required,
    but was informed that they would dub that
    bit in German. He, naturally, reminded them
    that he spoke German, only to be told that
    he spoke it like an Austrian farmer and so
    they wanted to dub that part of it … ?

    This is ridiculous of course, but sometimes
    you just can’t win. And now I’m smiling again …

    A great lesson Geraldine, and filled with
    many useful examples of “need-to-know”

    Merci beaucoup ~

  • Get My Weekly Lessons

    In Your Inbox

    Join the 30,000+ French learners who get my premium spoken French lessons for free every week!

    Share this post!


    Download this lesson as a PDF!

    Please enter your name and email address to get the lesson as a free PDF!