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Wiktionary defines je ne sais quoi as

An intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive.
She has a certain je ne sais quoi about her.

Is there a single-word equivalent?

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5  
You want a one-word English equivalent for four French words? Pourquoi? –  Peter Shor Jul 24 at 17:43
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@Bridget- Dunno. –  Jim Jul 24 at 17:45
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Just looking for another way to reference this quality. –  Bridget W. Jul 24 at 17:48
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Does je ne sais quoi mean the same thing in French as it does in English? (just curious) –  Rupe Jul 24 at 18:00
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@MattGutting A certain je-ne-sais-quoi is perfectly good English. You’ll even find it in any dictionary worth its salt in sugar. ;-) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 18:09

11 Answers 11

The one-word option that is the closest match to the French original is "something."

She has a certain something about her.

This has the same figurative meaning and close to the same literal meaning as the French phrase.

There's a Cole Porter song called "She's Got That Thing" that uses "thing" to express the same thing as "je ne sais quoi":

She's got that thing, that certain thing,

That thing that makes birds forget to sing

But in modern English, I think "something" is more idiomatic.

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Something is actually just right. So simple, yet it seems to have occurred to no one (myself included). Edit: Except ermanen who posted the same thing 30 seconds after you did! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 18:21
    
I extended it to "something-or-other" :-) –  Matt Gutting Jul 24 at 18:32
    
@MattGutting I think that's a bit better. For me, a certain something doesn't convey the idea that you don't know what the something is, not as strongly as je-ne-sais-quoi does at any rate. Something-or-other helps with this. And it also has hyphens. –  Rupe Jul 24 at 18:39

Je ne sais quoi is a loan phrase in English so it is English already. This phrase captures the idea more precisely than any other equivalent and has the sense of that indescribable elegance, so that would be why it is loaned from French.

One word equivalent would be something but it is used with the adjective certain and makes sense in a context.

An explanation from http://french.about.com:

Elle a un je-ne-sais-quoi qui m'intrigue.
She has a certain something that intrigues me, There's something intriguing about her.

English's borrowing of this expression is limited to the meaning in the final example: "a certain something" or "something inexplicable." The only adjective that can accompany je ne sais quoi in English is "certain":

She has a certain "je ne sais quoi" that intrigues me.

His house is very nice, but it lacks a certain "je ne sais quoi."

or you can simply say "There's something about her." which would be the most common way to say.


Other than that, there is another phrase that has a similar sense in it: defy description.

Be so unusual or remarkable as to be impossible to describe:
the sheer scale of the Requiem defies description

Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com


If we really want to go with one descriptive word, panache comes close which has this sense of flamboyance also and is usually used to define people or things with that certain style. The origin is French again and it is used figuratively.

Cambridge Dictionaries defines as:

a stylish , original , and very confident way of doing things that makes people admire you

Thefreedictionary defines as:

distinctive and stylish elegance

It is also used with the adjective certain and you can find a lot of contemporary usages. So if we apply to your example:

She has a certain panache.

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… especially if her name is Mary. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 18:23
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There really is no need for “QUOTES” and “BOLD” and “ITALIC” when making the use–mention distinction. Italic alone suffices; the rest is mere distraction that messes up the page-look and comes across as yelling. Less is more. –  tchrist Jul 24 at 18:41
    
I use bold for emphasis, removed the quotes. I don't use quotes normally but I used this time somehow (maybe because of the sentence structure). –  ermanen Jul 24 at 19:03
    
But you’re doubling down on the markup. There is no reason for that. It comes off like yelling. Italic suffices. –  tchrist Jul 24 at 22:33
    
"a certain something" seems exactly right, as does "defy description" although a bit different since it may or may not be positive. "panache" doesn't seem right to me, since it loses the important "undefinable" part. –  Don Hatch Jul 25 at 7:41

I suggest allure to convey the idea of an undefinable attractiveness about her:

  • high, often subtle attractiveness: charms that still allure.

Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Allure

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...assuming that certain something is attractive or alluring, not some negative attribute. Although, I think that when most people say that someone has a je ne sais quoi, they mean it in a positive way. –  Kristina Lopez Jul 24 at 18:55
    
@KristinaLopez - I agree, but does my answer suggest something negative to you? –  Josh61 Jul 24 at 18:58
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At first I was thinking "allure" might be too specific in a positive direction but then came around to agreeing with you after thinking about it a little bit. +1! :-) –  Kristina Lopez Jul 24 at 19:05

In The Daily Show's America: The Book, je ne sais quoi is half jokingly, but not entirely inaccurately translated as "it", as in "some people got it". Perhaps not the best term for formal writing, but "it" may be the closest equivalent that is actually used in English speech.

Original Quote (on page 127):

The French call it "je ne sais quoi." Americans, who aren't pretentious snobs and don't need fancy words to make them feel all cool, call it "it"

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Kerouac calls it IT. –  Eric Jul 24 at 21:19
    
I was considering mentioning the possibility that this "translation" was found elsewhere, but I couldn't really get the wording to my liking, and didn't know of any specific examples anyway. –  Disguised Tree Jul 24 at 22:05

Charisma, “personal charm or magnetism”, is another term to consider. Charisma is perhaps not undefinable, but often is recognized without being pinned down to any specific characteristic of a person.

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X factor or X-factor

X factor means some advantageous quality that someone or something is attributed to have, a quality that is regarded as mysterious and difficult to describe or isolate. (source)

Apparently it was coined in 1934 (source), but the recent popularity of the eponymous television show might make this word less appropriate for your purposes.

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I'd say the context of what you're responding to will shape the word you're looking for.

If you just can't put description to the way something feels or looks, you could use: Unexplainable, Unfathomable, or Undefinable. These help pass the point across that it is something, but words can't explain how it feels.

Alternatively, if you're just not aware of a situation at hand. You would say that you were oblivious to it. Lacking the knowledge of that topic entirely.

Unsure could work as well. I personally think it doesn't feel as appropriate though and doesn't emphasize enough the point that could be made with other words.

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Your example was, "She has a certain 'je ne sais quoi' about her."

You could potentially use any of the following words: - look, poise, demeanor, mien, air, mystic

Hope that helps!

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I take it you mean mystique, rather than mystic? Unless the mystic is also a contortionist, it might be difficult for him to be about her as such … –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 18:15
    
Mystique is quite good and air isn't too bad. I think the other words in the list are too specifically visual. –  Rupe Jul 24 at 18:31

An argument could be made for aura fitting this usage. However, without a qualifier (i.e. "She had an aura of mystery about her."), most people would assume that you were speaking of a supernatural effect, rather than a figurative one.

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There are all sorts of possible replacements for "je ne sais quoi". To borrow from two of the more erudite English speakers in the United States*, instead of:

"She has a certain je ne sais quoi", you could simply say, "She's cool".

or instead of, "The Mona Lisa has a certain je ne sais quoi", you could simply say, "The Mona Lisa is cool". Possibly followed by "yeah, yeah", for emphasis.

Seriously, the word "cool" gives the idea that something is interesting or neat, without specifying what exactly. Just like "je ne sais quoi".

*Beavis and Butthead

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She has a certain composure... She has a certain composition...

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Welcome to ELU.SE! Composition? Please take a moment to find upvoted answers to see the type of answer this site is looking for. We also provide help on answering questions. Answers should ideally include some sort of independent corroboration, correctly referenced. –  Andrew Leach Jul 25 at 10:37

protected by Andrew Leach Jul 25 at 10:38

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