Why are seemingly foreign words such as hors d’œuvres, maître d’, garçon, and Gesundheit used in American vernacular?

  • Sometimes, in Britain, people will debunk the Hors D'Oeuvres, by referring to them as 'the horse's douvres'. I think Steptoe (BBC 1960s comedy Steptoe and Son) was the first. youtube.com/watch?v=PFxVBS7gFSs
    – WS2
    Apr 9, 2014 at 22:52
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    Once we steal them, they aren't foreign anymore. At one time or another we have grabbed 2/3 of English words from French, Latin, and any other place we decide to.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 9, 2014 at 22:59
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    English is such a hotchpotch of other languages. New words come and go, either from other languages or from subcultures. Some stick, some don't. Foreign words are usually "assimilated", but in the case of these French words, they are preserved by a particular cultural sector as their jargon.
    – user63230
    Apr 9, 2014 at 23:08
  • Whither comes English? German? Romance? Scandinavian? Indo-whatever? There are so many sources at different points in time, how do you determine what is native and what is imported?
    – bib
    Apr 9, 2014 at 23:45
  • @Oldcat: Exactement, mon ami! And we ain't never gonna give those cheese-eating surrender monkeys any of their words back! But I was a bit bothered the other day when I discovered they'd knicked our f*cking word! :) Apr 10, 2014 at 1:01

3 Answers 3


All languages in the world have borrowed words from other languages. That is how language works. In the title to your question there are four words of non-English origin: "foreign", "used", "modern" and "vernacular".

  • Five, surely: used is foreign, too. Oct 9, 2016 at 19:08
  • @JanusBahsJacquet. It is already in the list.
    – fdb
    Oct 9, 2016 at 19:19
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    @fdb Wow, okay… reading and counting fail on my part. How the hell did I manage that?! Oct 9, 2016 at 19:20

There are words that are retained in their original language because they impart a certain feel, say, of elegance, snobbery, belonging, etc. hors d' oeuvres, maitre d', and garçon were retained by French restaurants, and came to be generalized because of the connotation of elegance and sophistication of French restaurants. The same could be said of concierge in a hotel.

There are words that perfectly capture a situation in a foreign language, which cannot be captured so precisely in English. An example of that would be schadenfreude (the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.) English 'borrows' them.

There are words that have been carried over from waves of immigrants, words that were used enough by a group, or captured the fancy of other English speaking people, that they stayed in the language. A typical example of this is the story of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

"German immigrants came to Pennsylvania in 1683 and settled in the appropriately-named “Germantown,” now a section of Philadelphia. As Pennsylvania grew, more Germans came to the colony and more them pushed further inland, settling in Berks and Lehigh counties in the 17th century..."

We inherited German words like Verboten, or Gott in Himmel (the im having been changed to in), and they have adopted English into their dialect: outen the lights is a common expression around the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania, spoken by non-Deutch people.

The reasons are varied, but there are several that are most prominent. I've listed three.

  • 1
    @fdb - maître d'hôtel: mid 16th century: French, literally 'master of (the) house'. Apr 9, 2014 at 23:58
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    Yes, but not "maitre d'".
    – fdb
    Apr 9, 2014 at 23:58
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    @fdb - oh, you're right. It's Russian. What was I thinking? Apr 10, 2014 at 0:00
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    +1 this. The more I travel, the more foreign words slip into my vocabulary because they just work better than their English counterparts! Also, a Google search for "words that don't exist in English but should" yields some fascinating results.
    – user12664
    Apr 10, 2014 at 5:26
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    @todofixthis - thanks! Some of those words are great! ') Apr 10, 2014 at 6:43

This is mostly anecdotal (I can't find/don't have/remember my sources):

  • English as a language can be limiting. Compared to another language, say German, we simply don't have the fluidity of vocabulary to make up words. The common perception is that the German language lends itself to fairly easily building of words, some a portmanteau of pre-exisiting words. This is how we find ourselves borrowing a schadenfreude, because we simply don't have a single word to express the concept. It's literal translation is Harm-Joy, hardly an original construction and it barely makes sense, considering what we use it for. If we were to make an identical construction in the english language, it'd sound silly.

  • The use of latin (and descendant words) evolved from the need of two estates (clergy and nobility) to distinguish themselves from the filthy 3rd estate, the commoners. See, back in the middle ages, English language (and Germanic languages in general) was for the use of the unwashed masses. French and Latin were the preference of nobility and in that vein, they refused to address many concepts using the language of commoners, instead choosing to borrow from Latin. This is how you'll find the word horse in colloquial use and equine in more academic references. This largely accounts for the large number of French and Latin loan words and root words we have in english.

EDIT: I found something in the way of a reference, but it doesn't corroborate exactly what I have here: http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/courses/4301w99/lge.html

  • 1
    Huh? 'Compared to another language, say German, we simply don't have the fluidity of vocabulary to make up words'. Well, I'll agree the rules of syntax don't generally allow this in English, but to suggest English doesn't 'make up words' is absurd. It has a much larger vocabulary than any other language. Apr 10, 2014 at 8:00
  • @nicodemus13 - I don't mean to suggest English doesn't make up words; compared to German, we don't have the same fluidity
    – kolossus
    Apr 10, 2014 at 12:47

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