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My primary language being French, I can clearly understand what en route means ("on its way"). I can't see, however, why English-speaking people would use this French expression.

Why is it used?

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This question seems as relevant to English as to French, really; both use the term in basically the same way, as you alluded to. You may want to think of committing to the French Language & Usage proposal. – Jez Jul 14 '11 at 8:18
As it stands, I feel this question is not answerable. Something similar that comes closer to "Why are there loanwords for phrases that have perfectly sensible English translations?" might be more apropos. – Kit Z. Fox Jul 14 '11 at 15:02
up vote 9 down vote accepted

On the way can mean a number of things:
- in transit (to): "Flight 105 is on its way to Los Angeles"
- going the right direction: "He set them on their way"
- along/beside the path: "On our way, we saw a lot of wildflowers."

By contrast, en route (in English usage, anyway) only means "in transit (to)." It can be quite useful to use a word or phrase with no ambiguity. Also, from my (admittedly brief) review of Ngrams/Google Books citations, it seems that the phrase was first brought into English in military contexts; logistics is certainly a field where clarity and concision are prized.

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I have studied English for a long time, and one of my pet projects has been to find words that originated in the British Isles before all the invasions began, a couple of thousand years ago.

To date, I have found precisely 0 (zero) words that cannot be traced back to the languages of the various invaders -- we don't even know the name the Beakers called themselves (the name "Beakers" was given to them because they made a lot of clay beakers).

So finding that we use a word from another language is not at all an unusual event -- All of our words come from other languages.

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Yes, there is no English equivalent of the Academie Francaise – pavium Jul 14 '11 at 7:38
EL&U supports UTF8 but not entities in comments so Académie Française – mplungjan Jul 14 '11 at 7:39
+1 for the scholarship. It's interesting to note that even the names of the countries of the U.K. were bestowed by the newcomers. Wales, for example, was the term used by the Saxon invaders to mean "foreigners"! – Robusto Jul 14 '11 at 15:04
Does the Académie really stop the French from using English phrases? – GEdgar Jul 14 '11 at 15:53
@GEdgar: Yes and no. The Académie doesn't just say "Thou Shalt Not!", but puts forward (where possible) alternatives that can be used. Since the alternatives are preferable to a lot of people, they get adopted. – Mark Wallace Jul 14 '11 at 15:56

Most languages have adopted "isms" from other languages, when there are few convenient expressions in the first language for a particular concept. "En route" just happens to be a French expression widely adopted in English. Ditto for "savoir faire," "faux pas," or RSVP (Repondez-vous s'il vous plait.)

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