Foreign Phrases Used in English: Do You Know What They Mean?


By: J. Reinoehl

6 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

We challenge you to ace this foreign phrases quiz!

It was bound to happen. As the world became easier to navigate, and explorers traveled the globe and set up communities in foreign lands, they brought some of their lingo with them. Now, we're not talking about learning entire languages, but rather the tendency for one geographical area to incorporate some phrases from other geographical areas into their everyday language. For instance, there are several commonly used Latin and French phrases that have crept into English. Many people don't even realize that these phrases have their origins in other languages. If you think you know what we're talking about, read on.

Do you know the historical meaning of "avant-garde?" Have you ever thought about the Latin phrase that "AD" is a shorthand reference to? Did you know that "cordon bleu" isn't just the name of a cooking school or a type of chicken preparation? 

Think you know all of the foreign phrases used in English? Take this quiz to find out!

What does “en masse” mean?

"En masse" means "in mass" in French. For example: The people rushed to the stage en masse so they could catch a glimpse of their favorite rock star.


What does “bona fide” mean?

“Bona fide” is a Latin term literally meaning “with good faith.” It is usually an adjective, but in some legal cases, it can be used as an adverb that means “without intending to deceive.”


What does “faux pas” mean?

"Faux pas" is a French phrase that means "false step" (as in dance step.) It's come to mean a social misstep. For example, wearing a white dress to a friend's wedding is a serious faux pas.


What does “post mortem” mean?

"Post mortem" literally translates to "after death" in Latin. As early as the 1200s, the University of Bologna advocated legal autopsies in criminal cases, and its medical facilities began performing autopsies about 100 years later. The Catholic Church did not widely accept the practice of dissecting human remains until the 1500s.


What does “a cappella” mean?

"A capella" is Italian for "in chapel style" which means singing without instrumentation, much like a church choir. It's come to mean, more broadly, a style of singing in which instrumental sounds are produced by human vocals, as well as regular singing sans instrumental accompaniment.


What does the abbreviation P.S. used at the bottom of a letter or correspondence stand for?

P.S. originally stood for the Latin phrase, "post scriptum," which eventually became "postscript." It literally means "after writing" and is used for any last minute thoughts that a letter writer might have had after concluding the initial letter. Remember, this was long before computers and the ability to add text into a message at any point.


Which of the following is "an unprepared speech?"

"Ad lib" comes from the Latin term “ad libitum” meaning “as you wish.” It essentially means to speak or perform without any preparation. For example: The groom's brother ad-libbed his speech at the wedding reception.


What does "bon voyage" mean?

"Bon voyage" is French for "good trip." It's used as a farewell when someone is setting off on their travels.


What does "crème de la crème" mean?

This is a French idiomatic term that literally translates to "the cream of the cream." The meaning is more along the lines of "the very best" of something.


What foreign phrase does the abbreviation “etc.” stand for?

“Et cetera” or its abbreviation, “etc.” means “other things not specified.” It comes from the Latin phrase meaning “and the rest.”


What does “carte blanche” mean?

“Carte blanche” is from the French phrase that literally translates to “white card.” However, it was originally “charte blanche” or a “white charter,” which was a peace agreement drawn up after one side surrendered.


Which of the following means “every year?"

“Per annum,” a phrase borrowed from Latin, is primarily used for financial purposes, especially when calculating interest rates. In some cases, it refers to annual totals, such as costs per year, income per year and the amount produced each year.


What does “doppelganger” mean?

"Doppelganger" has a fascinating history. The word is German, and it means "double-goer." According to German legend, all living people have an identical (albeit invisible) spirit counterpart. In 1796, a German writer came up with the word "doppelganger" to describe this phenomenon.


Which of the following means “stiffness of muscles after death?"

"Rigor mortis," from the Latin for “stiffness of death,” usually occurs two to six hours after death. Many things can affect its time span, including temperature and body pH, but once it occurs, it can help determine if a body has been moved after death.


Which of the following means “the main items in the preceding statement can be switched?”

"Vice versa" is a Latin phrase which originally meant "the order being changed." Today, you'd use it like this: I don't like my colleague, and vice versa.


What foreign phrase does the abbreviation “RSVP” stand for?

"Repondez s’il vous plait" is French for "please respond." It's meant to allow those who are hosting a party to know how many people to prepare for.


What does “déjà vu” mean?

"Déjà vu" is French for "already seen." Some believe déjà vu occurs when your body confuses a repetition of identical feelings in a new place with having been there before. Jamais vu is the opposite of déjà vu and means you feel as if you have never been to a place, even if you're actually familiar with it.


Which of the following is a dangerously seductive woman?

The term, “femme fatale” did not come into popular use until the 1900s. It's a French phrase that literally means "disastrous woman." It usually refers to women who use their sex appeal to convince men to put themselves in dangerous situations.


What does "hara kiri” mean?

"Hara kiri" literally translates to "belly cut," which is a form of ritualized suicide practiced by samurai to avoid disgrace and preserve honor. The first recorded instance of ritual suicide in Japan occurred in the Battle of Uji when Minamoto no Yorimasa used it to avoid capture.


What does “non sequitur” mean?

"Non sequitur" is Latin, and it means "it does not follow." Today, it's most commonly used to describe "a statement that does not follow logically from, or is not clearly related to, anything previously said" according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.


Which of the following means “in an artificial living environment.”

“In vitro” comes from the Latin phrase meaning “in glass.” It usually denotes growing cells in a petri dish or test tube, and is commonly used when referring to in vitro fertilization, a common type of fertility treatment.


What does “tête-à-tête” mean?

"Tête-à-tête" is French for "head-to-head." It simply means a conversation between two people that is private. You can easily picture them, heads together, in quiet dialogue.


What does “gung-ho” mean?

"Gung-ho" is an Anglicized word with Chinese origins. The original word was "gonghe," which meant "work together." It was adopted by the US Marines as a slogan during WWII.


What did “kindergarten” originally mean?

"Kindergarten" is a German word that literally translates to "child garden." A German educator named Friedrich Froebal characterized his students as plants in a garden (and educators as gardeners.) It now refers specifically to the year of school before primary school begins.


What does "hors d’oeuvre" mean?

From the French phrase for “outside of work,” the "hors d’oeuvre" is meant to stimulate the appetite before the main meal. They're most commonly called "appetizers."


What does “alter ego” mean?

This phrase derives from the Latin phrase meaning “other I.” Cicero was the first philosopher to develop the idea of a second self, and it has been used in literature for characters like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as throughout comic books when superheroes take on a human persona.


What does “coup d’état” mean?

"Coup d'etat" is a French phrase that literally means "blow of state." It's used to describe a violent overthrow of a government, usually by a small group.


A man who says “Et tu, Brute?” is making what kind of statement?

Shakespeare uses this phrase as the line last spoken by Julius Caesar. Marcus Brutus was a former friend of Caesar’s who led a group of senators to assassinate him. It's Latin for, "Even you, Brutus?"


What does “avant-garde” mean?

This word took a few twists and turns to get to its current definition. It originally is a French word that meant "vanguard" (as in a military vanguard.) It didn't become a word that described innovations in an artistic sense until the early 20th century.


What does “hakuna matata” mean?

“Hakuna matata” is a Swahili phrase that means “there are no problems here.” It was made popular after the Disney movie, "The Lion King," was released in 1994.


What does "status quo" mean?

“Status quo” is from the Latin phrase literally meaning “the state in which.” Here's an example of how it's used: The Congressional committee prefers to do things status quo, rather than make any radical decisions.


What does “à la mode” mean?

This French phrase literally meaning “in the fashion” is one of the first foreign phrases to enter English and initially was “alamode”—a type of black silk. Americans began using the phrase around the early 1900s to also mean “with ice cream.” It's unclear what precipitated this particular use.


When dates are written with the abbreviation “AD,” what foreign phrase does it represent?

AD means "anno Domini," which in Latin was shorthand for "anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi" which means, "in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ." AD was used with BC as a historical-dating term. It's now come into favor to use BCE and CE instead (meaning "before common era" and "common era.")


What does “hoi polloi” mean?

"Hoi polloi" is a Greek phrase that literally translates to “the many.” It more often refers to commoners. For example: The wealthy elite don't often mingle with the hoi polloi.


What which of the following means ”high quality?”

“Cordon bleu” is from the French for “blue ribbon.” It appeared in English in 1727 and sometimes refers to a dish made with chicken and ham.


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