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Are there any "fake" French words used in English? By "fake French" I mean words that are of French origin but are not actually correct French. This could happen if the word changes as it becomes adopted by English speakers. "Fake" may not be the best term for this -- if anyone can think of something better, please let me know. I mean French-derived terms that have evolved to the point of no longer being common-usage French.

Some examples of the reverse, i.e. "fake English" words used in French:

  • relooking, which means makeover -- this is derived from the English word "look" but "relooking" is not used by English speakers
  • happy end -- minor difference, but in the US at least we say "happy ending" and not "happy end"
  • brushing -- blow-drying your hair is called "un brushing", clearly derived from English, but if you announce "I'm going to get a brushing today" nobody will understand you
  • afterwork -- I'm not certain here, but I think "an afterwork" is extremely rare in English. In French, however, "un afterwork" is common and refers to meeting up after work, e.g. at a bar
  • smoking -- in French, "un smoking" is a fancy dinner jacket, which comes from the English "smoking jacket" -- but you can't say "I'm going to wear a smoking tonight" in English, at least not in the US
  • Inspired by Dan's comment: footing means a jog; you can't say "I'm going on a footing" in English
  • Found after following links on wiktionary: un lifting means a facelift; it's another English-derived French word that was never actually used by English speakers

The word "fake" in my title might be confusing -- I'm not looking for words that are pronounced with fake French accents, but rather for French-derived words that have evolved to the point of no longer being common-usage French (or that were never used in French to begin with, the way the French word footing was never used in English).


This question was closed for being too broad; this edit is an attempt to narrow it down.

I'm looking specifically for words that (a) are used in English; (b) are derived from French; but (c) would not make sense to a French speaker, either because the word was never used in French in the first place, or because the French and English versions of the word have drifted extremely far apart.

An example of the reverse is "un footing" in French: "a footing" is complete nonsense in English, and it would be hard to even guess what it means.

Some examples of words that aren't what I'm looking for:

  • The US usage of entrée doesn't really satisfy criterion (c) above: sure, the meanings have diverged a little bit, but barely.
  • Same comment as above for the US usage of petite -- it's still understandable to a French speaker.

I'm particularly interested in French-derived words that were never used in French, the way "footing" and "relooking" were never used in English.

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@rumtscho This isn't about false friends. False friends are words that look like cognates but are not, deceptively so to a learning speaker. What this question is about are words borrowed from another language and given a meaning that seems (to a native speaker of the borrowing language) to have a proper derived meaning, but are seen by a native speaker of the borrowed-from language to be alien. – SevenSidedDie Jan 16 at 1:46
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Interesting, Afterwork is used the same way in Swedish as in French. Pretty funny how an English word is used a certain way internationally but not in actual English-speaking countries. – Tobberoth Jan 16 at 12:05
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@Tobberoth In Czech, both "happyend" and "smoking" are used this way too. Interesting indeed. – svick Jan 16 at 13:54
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Cool question! It got both my up- & reopen-vote earlier so I have nothing more to add except the following off-topic comment: Another curious subset of French-to-English words would include the ones that, although retaining their basic meaning in both languages, have made it back to France as French nouns in forms that look and sound suspiciously like English gerunds/present participles (e.g., [le]‘camping/dancing/parking’=‘campground/dance hall/parking lot’). – Papa Poule Jan 27 at 15:34
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@PapaPoule thank you, I'm glad you find it interesting. I was surprised (and amused) by the nastiness of a certain commenter who had voted to close (and has since deleted his comment); it's nice to hear from the other side. – Adrian Jan 27 at 15:41

22 Answers 22

up vote 43 down vote accepted

Yes, there's even two sections for different types of these in the Wikipedia article about French phrases used in English ("List of French expressions in English"):

I remember reading before that nom de plume is not idiomatic in French, where instead they use nom de guerre. However, it appears that nom de plume now exists in French as well (thanks to Basj for the correction), possibly due to influence from the English term.

Another funny one I vaguely remembered reading about is giclée, a neologism coined to make art printed using an inkjet printer sound fancier, but that has unfortunate connotations of ejaculation in French (it literally refers to a "spurt" or "squirt").

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Ye-es... although a lot of these have pretty much the same meaning in English as in French... – Dan Jan 15 at 12:03
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The 'Not used as such in French' likewise is often on the nit-picking side of interesting. I am finding it hard, not being bilingual, working out which words from French (assuming you can spot them!) have actually morphed into something distinct. – Dan Jan 15 at 12:09
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Nom de plume is idiomatic in French (I'm French), but I never heard nom de guerre (in such a context) in my whole life. – Basj Jan 15 at 19:42
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@sumelic thanks, I didn't notice the final "e". No, entrée is always the first dish, never the main course in French. Apparently that's still the case in UK English as well, and only in American English did the meaning evolved this way. – njzk2 Jan 16 at 17:24
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The links don't include casserole, which has become a pet peeve of mine. In French it only refers to a certain kind of cooking ustensil (cylindrical, deep, and usually made of metal). – fkraiem Jan 17 at 22:14

"Double entendre" is a fake term made of two real French words which is only understood by English speakers and has no real meaning in French:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_entendre#Etymology

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great example!! – Joe Blow Jan 15 at 13:45
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Excellent example, about as "fake" as the French word footing – Adrian Jan 15 at 14:19
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Nope, the estimates I've seen are around 30%. – Luke Jan 15 at 21:10
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More accurate to say that English borrows heavily from Romance languages in general. It certainly is not a particularly unique genre, you might say. – fluffy Jan 15 at 21:40
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@Luke It depends on how you count and what corpus you use. Wikipedia claims 45% but excludes all derivations ("strait," "jacket," and "joy," but not "joyful" or "straitjacket"). Regardless of how you count it's a very large percentage (and it gets still larger if you count Latinate words received by way of French, etc., etc.). In short, "nope" is a little too simple. – Casey Jan 16 at 0:15

Parley - To treat, discuss terms; esp. to hold a parley (with an enemy or opponent), to come to parley. (OED)

This is a French word that has a different English meaning.

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Well if we're going to open it up to words that are derived from French but have since drifted in meeting in one language or the other we're going to go way beyond the scope of a single answer here, I think (by that standard I guess "chef" counts, for instance, but do you really think of that as a "French word?"). – Casey Jan 15 at 20:20
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@Dan No, it means "leader." "Chief" comes from the Old French version of the same word. – Casey Jan 16 at 0:10
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I think the example of "double entrendre" is a good one; there's one that we think of as French -- it's not unusual to see it in italics and many people insist on pronouncing it with a French accent, despite it being nonsense ("double to mean") in French. But we have very many French-origin words that no one would do that with because their foreignness is no longer really felt. – Casey Jan 16 at 0:12
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Pintel: "Parley? Damn to the depths whatever man that thought up parley!" Jack: "That would be the French." – Andrew Grimm Jan 18 at 4:32
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@Dan Well, yeah, that's where it comes from. But "chef de cuisine" is the head of the kitchen and not every chef is a "chef de cuisine." I'm not sure it's so clear to a French person if you go around calling every cook a "chef" what you mean. – Casey Jan 18 at 15:02
  • Patron

First time I traveled to the US, I was quite puzzled by a "Patron Parking Only" sign outside a restaurant.

Patron evolved differently with one of it English meaning being customer while in French patron main acception is colloquial for manager, i.e. translates to boss.

I somewhat hesitated to risk parking my car to a space I thought was reserved for the manager use...

It is quite amusing to see that what used to be the Latin patronus has slightly evolved in English to finally mean client, while the latter precisely comes from the Latin clientes which was the exact antonym of patronus.

  • Verge

Another puzzling word I saw in the UK : some road signs show "Soft verge, keep off" or "Soft verge for two miles". That would be "Soft shoulder" in the US and Accotements non stabilisés" in French. "Verge" originally meant rod / wand in both French and English but the meanings highly diverged as nowadays, in French, the word is almost exclusively used as a non slang, medical term for penis / phallus.

  • Grapes

As already answered by BlokeDownThePub raisins are French raisins secs but it happens also that Grapes, which comes from the French Grappe ( = cluster/bunch) are French raisins. That means "a cluster of grapes" translates to une grappe de raisin.

  • Pet pourri

Once in the New Jersey, I saw a store likely selling pet stuff that was named Pet pourri, obviously a pun with "pet" and "pot pourri". Their authors were obviously unaware the pun was much more funny in French. While Pot-pourri means, I guess like in English, a mixture of dried flowers, Pet pourri means Rotten fart ...

I just found there are several businesses using that name in the US: a similar shop still in NJ, a web site, a grooming place in FL and even a nick name.

  • Demand

Not exactly a fake word but there is a serious difference in meaning with the French demande that sometimes lead to issues. A "demand" is an exigeance in French while the French demande is just a (polite) request. I have seen English speaking pissed of by what they thought was an arrogant behavior when unaware Frenchmen were "demanding" something while they really just ask for it.

  • Preservatives

English preservatives are French conservateurs while French Preservatifs are English Condoms...

  • Reservoir

English reservoirs are French lacs de retenue/lacs artificiels (it used to be réservoir too but that meaning has been lost in current French). French Réservoir is mostly used to express what is in English a Fuel (or any liquid) tank.

  • Fabric / Tissue

English fabric is French tissu while French fabrique is English factory. English tissue is mostly used to name what French call mouchoir en papier (Kleenex® too).

  • Concierge

English concierges will eventually be named concierges too but currently, most French people are reluctant to call them that way because traditionally French concierges, essentially located in the ground floor of Paris area buildings, are what is called in English janitors/caretakers. Nowadays, these old style concierges have mostly disappeared though.

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I have never understood this one. How did patron in AmE get to mean "customer" rather than "boss"? – Christine Jan 16 at 19:45
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@Christine: A patron is one who provides you with the money to continue doing what you do. That describes both a [recurring] customer in relation to the business as such, and a boss in relation to an employee. – Henning Makholm Jan 17 at 17:04
    
@Christine: To complement Henning's precise explanation, just think about the different meanings of the English verb “to patronise” (or “-ize”). – DaG Jan 17 at 22:00
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@HenningMakholm Patron cames from the Latin Patronus, derived from Pater (father), litteraly "almost father", meaning either the defender (~ lawyer) or protector (a patrician was protecting multiple plebeians who, in return, were giving a financial compensation to the Patronus). These plebeians were called Clientes which gave "client" in both French and English. Unlike most and probably all other languages that inherited both of these roots, only English has managed to transform the patron into a client, while these words were exact antonyms in Latin. – jlliagre Jan 17 at 23:43
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@PeterShor Indeed, in French we say too Le client est roi (The customer is king). Note that I would even less park my car in a "boss only" labeled space. – jlliagre Feb 8 at 14:48

One French word which has (perhaps amusingly) taken on a dramatically new meaning in English (esp. US) is douche:

shower

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Wow, you're the only one who remembered it! It's amazing how the most obvious stuff is often overlooked. – Ricky Jan 17 at 2:23

Entrée actually means appetizer in French. the French use "plat principal" ou "plat de resistance" for entrée.

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This is also a difference between BrE and AmE. Only in North American usage does "entree" mean main course; in most other English-speaking areas, it retains the original French meaning. – Mike Harris Jan 16 at 18:36
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Thanks for the comment @MikeHarris! I was thinking, "But entrée means appetiser in English as well!" – CJ Dennis Jan 17 at 2:35
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I have found this very confusing in the USA. Where are the main dishes?! – gerrit Jan 18 at 10:46
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@gerrit well, but will you look at size of these horsd’œuvres! – yankeekilo Jan 18 at 13:05

petite in English is used as an adjective for a woman or girl that is both short and slender.

Kylie Minogue is petite

Kylie Minogue est toute menue or Kelly Minogue est un petit bout de femme.

Whereas petite in French is the feminine of petit, which can be used both as an adjective and a noun for just about anything that is small (in size, scope, etc.), little, short, young (les petits; the little ones), or younger (petite soeur; kid sister); (le petit Dumas; Young Dumas: the Dumas' son.)

E.g.

Marie est plus petite que Jeanne; Marie is shorter than Jeanne.

Jean habite une petite ville du Loir-et-Cher Jean lives in a small town in the Loir-et-Cher.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie est un joli petit village du Lot; Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is a quaint little village in the Lot area.

Tu vois la petite la-bas? C'est ma soeur; Can you see the short woman/gal (also, young little girl) over there? She's my sister.

Je prendrai la petite; I'll go with the small/short one.

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That's more of a case of the word losing meanings in English. – Joshua Jan 15 at 21:45

In BrE, as well as in French, "à la mode" means "fashionable". However, in AmE, it means "with a scoop of icecream".

Similarly, interpretations of entrée differ radically, meaning "starter" in BrE, and "main course" in AmE, and "entrance" in French.

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Entrée also means starter (in the food sense) in France. – Adrian Jan 16 at 9:32
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A small typo, that's à la mode, not á la mode. – jlliagre Jan 16 at 13:17
    
@jilliagre Darn it! My machine is even set up to autocorrect it if I'd just not put the accent there in the first place. – Dewi Morgan Jan 16 at 18:37

Something that crossed my mind is "Omelette du fromage". I don't know if it is used by English speaking people but I do know it is a well known phrase among some people. From Urban Dictionary:

The amazing phrase from Dexter's laboratory in the episode "The Big Cheese", when he listens to a French recording overnight to learn said language. This consequentially gets stuck on repeat, on this phrase. The next day all he can say is "omelette du fromage", actually working to his advantage in everything he does (except at the end, when his lab blows up).

Although meant to depict "cheese omelette", this phrase is grammatically incorrect. You should say "omelette au fromage", which means "an omelette with cheese".

Despite this, people still say the phrase "for the lols."

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That's odd. I wonder if Dexter's "omelette du fromage" comes from Steve Martin? In the 70s, his stand-up act included a routine about 'getting by' in Paris ["... then, this is really dumb, you try adopting a French accent: I waahn to guh to zee hotel" . Then he moves on to ordering a cheese omelette. – David Garner Jan 15 at 15:21
    
@ David: "Yeah, gimme a shoe with cheese on it, and I wanna massage your grandmother" – DSKekaha Jan 15 at 17:24
    
You got it, @DSKekaha! – David Garner Jan 16 at 12:46
    
Yes, you are definitely right ^_^ – ABcDexter Jan 16 at 12:59

One interesting case is how chaise longue has long since evolved into chaise lounge in some usage in the US.

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That one's still the wrong side of the border between 'common error' and 'common usage'! – peterG Jan 16 at 0:03

I think the term you are looking for is false friend, or in French, faux-ami.

False friends are words in two languages (or letters in two alphabets)1 that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (which means pregnant), or the word sensible, which means reasonable in English, but sensitive in French and Spanish.

Some examples I can think off the top of my head:

Chef - anyone who cooks professionally in English, a boss in French

Ancien(t) - Something that is old in English, but in French, ancien can also mean "the ex-".

Bras - Plural of brassieres in English, the arms in French

Money/monnaie - Any form of negotiable currency in English, loose change in French.

Library/Librarie - A place where you borrow books in English, a place where you buy them in French.

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A chef in Fr. is broader (all sorts of chiefs of), but it is possible to use chef (as an absolute) for the chef de cuisine (head chef). I'm uncertain about sous-chef though... – L'aditdabenlà Jan 17 at 12:39
    
False friends aren’t necessarily directly etymologically related though, whereas OP, I think, is looking for such a relationship. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 18 at 15:33

A couple words from western USA/Canada, left over from early exploration days:

plew - a beaver skin

Dictionaries claim it to be from the French pelu (hairy), but in mountain man/history buff circles it's often claimed to be from the French plus (more)

parfleche - dry rawhide, or a container made from rawhide. In reality, it's not literally rawhide. It's slightly worked, but not tanned.

from the French parrer flèche i.e. deflect arrows

capote - a coat (historically, a hooded coat made from a wool blanket)

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side note: in french, capote now means condom. – njzk2 Jan 16 at 17:28
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re capote: ...as well as many other things, including the coat, and the thing you raise on a convertible car... – L'aditdabenlà Jan 17 at 23:35

In French prune and raisin refer to plums and grapes in their natural state; in English they refer to the dried variety.

I suppose this is because in the old days it was the only way of preserving them for export.

Also there's sacre bleu and zut alors, both expressions of annoyance that nobody actually uses.

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In Eurovision "nul points" or "nil points" are made-up expressions meaning zero points:

When a country finishes with a score of zero, it is often referred to in English-language media as nul points, or sometimes nil points. The correct French for "no points" is pas de points or zéro point, but none of these phrases is used in the contest, as no-point scores are not announced by the presenters.

"Douze points" is also used, meaning the maximum 12 points one country can give another, but that is genuine French.

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'Connoisseur' is interesting because it is 'fake' in two ways; the modern French spelling is connaisseur, and the French word refers to knowledge rather than appreciation.

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connaisseur refers to appreciation as well, despite the root connaissance meaning knowledge. – njzk2 Jan 16 at 17:31

And "cul-de-sac". French call a dead-end street "impasse".

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"Un cul-de-sac" is the same as "une impasse" in french. I could use either. – Erwan Legrand Jan 15 at 16:34
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fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/cul-de-sac is used essentially the same way in French as in English – Adrian Jan 15 at 17:23
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"Cul de sac" has the same meaning in French, but it's mildly familiar, so it wouldn't be used on road signs or in documents (at least in France). – Bruno Jan 15 at 18:43
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@MatthewLeingang Uses of the word cul-de sac in French are recorded long before the Old Continent decided to set foot across the Pond! See the TLF, etymology and uses. Nowadays French people prefer voie sans issue to cul-de-sac and this might be a consequence of voie sans issue being the term used by the highway code. An ngram shows the decline of the use of the word in French in the 20th century. Too long to include the result of an ngram in a comment but anyone interested can run it themselves. – Laure Jan 17 at 11:58
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@tom As a French native and considering as well the authoritative link I've pointed too I can assure you this is absolutely not an issue. In France (I wouldn't know about Quebec or other French speaking areas) it is just slightly old-fashioned. – Laure Jan 18 at 15:29

Coup de grace is sometimes used to mean Mow de lawn. Campers often have En tent Cordial. Fixez les brakes seems to have superseded Reparer les freins

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My all time fave is "Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"

Oh wait. What's that? You say that actually does mean, "Do you want to...?" My bad.

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Good one! The Wiki entry says it is used in The Streetcar Named Desire: I'm having a problem finding it. Oh, and +1, naturally, to balance out the downvote, among other things. People are so petty. – Ricky Jan 17 at 3:31

Would "petty" count? Or has it been part of English so long that it has become an English word?

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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. - From Review – choster Jan 18 at 7:05
    
Sure, that's a pretty good one -- fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/petit (see #3) can also mean mediocre in French, but that's not quite the same as petty in English – Adrian Jan 18 at 13:06

Of course.

For instance, the word partez is sometimes used (jocosely and otherwise) to mean party (the noun or verb).

Count de Monet is how a stingy person is sometimes referred to (to their face).

I recently made an attempt on ELU to introduce payage (for tollage). A long and intriguing discussion ensued.

Toot sweet is more or less ubiquitous.

There is plenty of French-like nonsense, mostly parodied, in the English and American literature. One example that springs to mind is Charlotte's "departez!" (she means to say "depart!") in Nabokov's Lolita. The same novel mentions our especial fondness of Ball Zack.

(Needless to say we're also fond of Bow Mar Shay, Flaw Bear, Due Mar, and constantly Parley Voo about various stuff going on in the province of Sham Pain).

Generally, it is the belief of all people worth speaking of that every educated person must speak English no matter where he was born; but every educated person who also thinks of himself/herself as intelligent must also speak French. It is, after all, the language of the cultured class. I'm almost not joking.

There's a cafe just north of the Plus Maw Bare in Paris where my painting of the Shut Lay hangs. In case you're wondering what this Plus Maw Bare is, here's my painting of it:

enter image description here

P.S. On @SevenSidedDie's request: t To those who don't get it (for whatever reason):

  1. Partez (pronounced par-TAY) is what some people think, or pretend to think, is the French word for "party". As in "Let's party!"

  2. Count de Monet: Comte is the French word for "Count," but this is ignored by the joker. "Count the money" is the implication here.

  3. Payage means "toll" in French. "Tollage" means "toll" in English. "Fundage" means money secured for a project (the project can be anything, including, but hardly limited to, buying food and paying rent).

  4. Toot sweet: a phonetic rendering of toute de suite. Means "right away" in French. Toot: to make a short, high sound with a horn or whistle. Sweet: being or inducing one of the basic four (some say six) taste sensations.

  5. Departez! - means exactly nothing in French. But it does look a lot like the English verb "depart". Assumptions are sometimes - a bit cavalierly, perhaps, which makes them funny.

  6. Ball Zack: phonetic rendering (a little bent to fit American pronunciation) of the name Balzac (as in Honore de Balzac, famous French novelist and coffee lover).

  7. Bow Mar Shay: Pierre Beaumarchais, French dramatist and dissident.

  8. Flaw Bear: Gustave Flaubert, French novelist.

  9. Due Mar: Alexandre Dumas, Pere and Alexandre Dumas, Fils, father and son, French novelists and dramatists.

  10. Parley Voo: from "Parlez-vous Français?" ("Do you speak any French, you moron?"); here: just "talk" or "speak". The "vous" part makes it sound sophisticated (in some people's opinion).

  11. Sham Pain: Champagne, of course.

  12. The Plus Maw Bare: Place Maubert.

  13. The Shut Lay: Place de Chatelet.

  14. Lolita: here, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, in which, among other things, a middle-class housewife writes a love letter to a man whom she is trying to impress by using what she thinks is a French word.

I hope this helps.

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Toot sweet = "tout de suite" is idiomatic and correct French. – sumelic Jan 15 at 11:55
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So is "parlez-vous" as in "parlez-vous français?" – Adrian Jan 15 at 11:59
    
@Adrian: Yes, but Frun Say is usually dropped, and what's left stands for plain old "talk." – Ricky Jan 15 at 12:01
    
@sumelic - "toot sweet and the tooter the sweeter" is, of course, based on tout-de-suite, but with the 'tooter the sweeter' added - I think this was slang from WWI with English troops in France, but I can't remember other examples..... – tom Jan 18 at 14:33
    
Toll = Péage i.e. right to pass on foot (lat. pes, pedis) not payage (sic). – L'aditdabenlà Jan 19 at 2:17

I would posit that in US English, Fillet qualifies as a Fake French word, merely due to how most people I have known from the US pronounce it (fɪl·eɪ rather than fɪl.ɪt).

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Of course there exist words as described and they are called loanwords.

From the British Library, we have:

"Loanwords are words brought into one country from another. Words are generally 'loaned' when two different cultures come into contact with each other. This might be because of immigration, trade, fashions or foods, travellers tales, the arts (paintings, books, poetry or film), technologies, wars or colonisation".

Complementing this thought we have in the Oxford Dictionary that loanword is "a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification".

HERE is a list of French loanwords used in English, among them, some very well-known: bidet, camouflage, coup d’etat, croissant, cuisine, lingerie, prestige, silhouette, souvenir and voyeur.

In portuguese (my native language), they are known as "estrangeirismo" (foreigness if literally translated). In German and French they are known as "xenisme" with a slight difference in French because of the acute (xénisme).

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A downvote for nothing. Thank you, community! That's very constructive. – Eduardo Almeida Jan 17 at 22:07
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Not my downvote, but I think I know the reason for it. I'm not a French speaker, but I believe the terms you listed are used in French as well, whereas for example douche or bon ton means something quite different in English compared to its original meaning. I'm not sure if bon ton is actually used in French, maybe it is. Boh! – Mari-Lou A Jan 17 at 23:07
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@Mari-LouA Bon ton is definitely French. @ Eduardo Not my downvote either but the one you got is likely pointing the fact you missed what the question is about. It is not about words coming from French in English as, according to the Oxford Dictionary definition (little or no modification), there are likely thousands and may be tens of thousands of these, but about loanwords with meanings that have substantially diverged between French and English. None of the ones you cite are in this case. – jlliagre Jan 17 at 23:18
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Thank you! At least you bothered explaining it to me. – Eduardo Almeida Jan 18 at 0:16

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