I know that the two phrases have been adopted into the English lexicon, but raison d’être and joie de vivre are phrases, not words. As phrases, they certainly sound better in French than would their literal translation to English.

Are there any "more English" words or expressions for the same concepts?

If not, doesn't that seem odd, or is it common enough for even borrowed phrases to supplant the development of a native term?

(Further, it seems a little conspicuous that a language would lack native terms for such core concepts of the human experience!)

  • 2
    You're not likely to get much more than near-literal translations. I would be so bold as to posit that the reason why many of these frenchisms are popular en anglais, is that it just sounds better (or speakers want to be perceived thus) in french. English vernacular is full of stuff like this - Bon ami, Je ne sais quoi e.t.c. , all because they're just not as rich-sounding as similar expressions in English
    – kolossus
    Jun 10, 2015 at 17:33
  • 4
    @AlexW: You beg the question! I thought these phrases were as English as other French "loan-words" like apropos, attache, etc.; and "loan-phrases" like au contraire, a la carte, carte blanche, etc.
    – feetwet
    Jun 10, 2015 at 18:45
  • 4
    “If not, doesn't that seem odd, or is it common enough for even borrowed phrases to supplant the development of a native term?” — Quite the contrary. The textbook situation where loan words are adopted is when there is no native word for the concept. So if there is no ‘Englisher’ word for these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean the French ones had supplanted the English ones; it might just as well mean that the lack of native English words is exactly why the French ones were borrowed to begin with. Jun 10, 2015 at 20:38
  • 15
    English has "reason for existence" and "joy of living" -- perfectly fine phrases. It's just that the French terms have a certain je ne sais quoi.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10, 2015 at 21:50
  • 4
    (In other words, these phrases are not used because the associated concepts cannot be as efficiently expressed in English. Rather, they are used because French phrases sound high-brow.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10, 2015 at 21:54

8 Answers 8


We can trace most English words back to a time they were borrowed from another language:

enter image description here Image from Wikipedia.org

The expressions raison d'etre and joie de vivre, are relatively recent, acquisitions:

raison d'etre (n.)

"excuse for being," 1864, first recorded in letter of J.S. Mill,
from French raison d'être, literally "rational grounds for existence."

joie de vivre (n.)

1889, French, literally "joy of living."

etymonline.com emphasis added

I might add that the acquisition of joie de vivre seems incomplete, as the etymology lists it as French, rather than from French. It seems to have a reasonable chance of making a complete entry into English eventually, since we have always been quite hospitable toward elegant French expressions. I still italicize joie de vivre as a foreign expression in my writing, but it seems common enough that some might consider it pure English.

As a reasonable intersection of the two French phrases, I like life force:


The vital principle or animating force within living beings:

The American Heritage® Roget's Thesaurus.

The rational basis of our existence as living things is some life force that we do not yet fully understand, and joy seems to be a particularly meaningful expression of our life force.

Some may complain that the word force is still too French, because it was borrowed from Old French, but it was actually quite a long time ago:

c. 1300, "physical strength,"
from Old French force "force, strength; courage, fortitude; violence, power, compulsion" (12c.),
from Vulgar Latin *fortia (source also of Old Spanish forzo, Spanish fuerza, Italian forza),
noun use of neuter plural of Latin fortis "strong, mighty; firm, steadfast; brave, bold" (see fort).

etymonline.com emphasis added

If we concede to the objections against force, we can still be satisfied with plain old life, which is about as English as any English word can get:

Old English life (dative lif) "existence, lifetime, way of life, condition of being a living thing, opposite of death,"
from Proto-Germanic *libam
(cognates: Old Norse lif "life, body," Dutch lijf "body," Old High German lib "life," German Leib "body"), properly "continuance, perseverance,"
from PIE *leip- "to remain, persevere, continue; stick, adhere" (see leave (v.)).

Much of the modern range of meanings was present in Old English.
Meaning "property which distinguishes living from non-living matter" is from 1560s.
Sense of "vitality, energy" is from 1580s.
Extended 1703 to "term of duration (of inanimate objects)."

etymonline.com emphasis added

Language is my life. Meaning: Language is my conscious rationale to work another day, and the deepest joy of my heart.

  • See also this: (for joie de vivre) "General feeling of well-being, total contentment arising from the simple fact of existing" (my translation). "Il s'agissait [dans les Noces de Cana] (...) de montrer la force, la santé, et la joie de vivre dans des visages radieux, exempts d'inquiétude, et des corps robustement superbes (Gautier, Guide Louvre, 1872, p. 40).". In an American movie a character said something along the lines of "you're messing with my Qi"; sometimes I feel "joie de vivre" is used like that in English, more so than with Fr.. Thanks.
    – user98955
    Jun 10, 2015 at 20:36
  • Qi is the Chinese analogy to life force!
    – ScotM
    Jun 10, 2015 at 20:38
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    Your first sentence says something I don’t believe you intended for it to say … (Also, I don’t believe it’s really important whether there is a from or not—there isn’t in joie de vivre because the English is precisely the same as the French source. In raison d’etre, the Anglicising got rid of the cirucmflex, so it’s from or based on French raison d’être, but it isn’t quite the same.) Jun 10, 2015 at 20:43
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, I accept the view of ancient language as "independent streams," and PGmc had the broadest, deepest and most powerful influence on Old English, so it is often helpful to view it as a straight line. Three factors moderate this view: 1. PGmc was never homogeneous. 2. It "borrowed" from other PIE based languages. 3. Most English expressions "borrowed" since OE, also trace to PIE with analogous Germanic cognates. Heretical as it seems, a straight line through Germanic stock is an arbitrary designation of English, which "borrowed" more from PGmc than any other source ;-)
    – ScotM
    Jun 10, 2015 at 22:06
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    @ScotM 1. PGmc was probably quite homogeneous at some point: it obviously developed far and wide, but at the starting point when it first separated itself enough to be a thing of its own, it must have been quite homogeneous. 2. Yes, all IE languages have borrowed exstensively from their neighbours (most of which have been IE also). 3. There are lots of English borrowings that have analogous Germanic cognates, yes. But there are also lots of words which have not at any point since PIE been borrowed in any ancestral stage of what is now English from any other language: they are purely inherited. Jun 10, 2015 at 22:13

For 'joie de vivre' I suggest

  • elan
  • panache

For 'raison d'etre', I suggest

  • essence
  • rationale

These were chosen ironically because you requested something English, which all of these are, and yet your hidden intention was that they be more ... Anglo-Saxon, which these are all not. You've kind of hit a bunch of issues here: translation (how exact must it be), when is a word English vs foreign (when you can tell or when everyone knows what it means), single words vs phrases (why must a single word be necessary? Because often they exist).

So in the end I think it is safe to say that really for what you intend there are no such words, but all of the suggestions, as much as they get close to the meaning, are literally English now.

  • I bet you like Italian operas too. Jun 10, 2015 at 22:01
  • @EdwinAshworth Ha ha! No.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10, 2015 at 22:06
  • I wish in cases like this the OP could designate a "tl;dr answer," because this is it!
    – feetwet
    Jun 11, 2015 at 0:57
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    hilarious answer, Mitch
    – Fattie
    Jun 11, 2015 at 3:37

Essence, Lifeblood, Be-all and end-all:

Cooking is my raison d'etre
Cooking is my essence.
Cooking is my lifeblood.
His work was the be-all and end-all of his existence.

However the latter (taken from the link) doesn't always sound good.

  • "lifeblood"... very nice.
    – John
    Jun 11, 2015 at 5:26

"joie de vivre" synonyms include:

  • zest
  • enthusiasm
  • fire
  • gusto
  • zeal
  • spirit
  • verve
  • ardour
  • vitality

"raison d'être" synonyms include:

  • purpose
  • mission
  • justification
  • rationale
  • point

As to why one might choose to use a loan word rather than something more English sounding, I'd say fashion. The only loan phrase from French that doesn't have a good English synonym (at least to my mind) is "déjà vu" for that strange sense of having done/seen something before.

  • You realize that gusto (very Italian sounding) is derived from Italian/Latin, as are spirit, verve, ardour (very French sounding to my ears), and vitality. Enthusiasm is French, whereas zeal is borrowed from Greek. Only fire is "English" i.e. West Germanic.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:39
  • I'm aware that "gusto" is another loan word. But honestly, if you're going to limit English to only those words coming from West Germanic sources, you'll eliminate a lot of history. Other that "gusto", I'd say the rest of the words have transformed enough from their sources to no longer be considered loaners.
    – dnagirl
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:46
  • Your list is filled with loanwords, some are older than others, but nearly all have become "English" over the years. Who is to say, when an English speaker will one day claim, Joie de vivre is an English sounding expression. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:47
  • So your objection is to "English sounding"? I'm fine substituting another phrase but "something borrowed earlier" doesn't really feel right to me. Suggestions?
    – dnagirl
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:54
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    I think a lot of people are overlooking just how nicely purpose fits.
    – Alex W
    Jun 11, 2015 at 14:10

The phrase raison d'etre is very commonly used in English as "reason for being". Example: John saw writing novels as his reason for being.

There is no specific phrase I am aware of which captures the full meaning of joie de vivre, leaving the method of expression up to the writer rather than having a set phrase.

  • Perhaps also consider "reason for existence" for raison d'etre.
    – Kiri
    Jun 10, 2015 at 21:34
  • How is "joy of living" not a "specific" English phrase?
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10, 2015 at 21:53
  • @HotLicks - In literature, usually the French is used directly. If you switch it to "Joy of living" in those instances, it almost always sounds awkward, because the way the phrase is used in French doesn't fit in sentences the same way. For example, this Sylvia Plath quote: "Life has been some combination of fairy-tale coincidence and joie de vivre and shocks of beauty together with some hurtful self-questioning." If you substitute "joy of living" here, it sounds quite awkward in English -- yet the placement and use is perfect with the French. This applies to most uses in English I've seen.
    – JohnH
    Jun 10, 2015 at 22:29
  • @HotLicks -- in these cases, if you wanted to switch to English, you would use one of many other elocutions, such as this paraphrase: "Life has been some combination of fairy-tale coincidence and delight in being alive and shocks of beauty together with some hurtful self-questioning." This is why I said there is no specific phrase which fully captures the meaning.
    – JohnH
    Jun 10, 2015 at 22:31
  • The only reason "joy of living" sounds strange coming from Sylvia Plath is because you expect her to say "joie de vivre".
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10, 2015 at 22:53

You might use "obsession" for "raison d'etre".

A common English expression for "joie de vivre" is: "lust for life".

  • 1
    Yeah, for Iggy Pop.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:41
  • Wish I had read this answer before posting my own, but ya... I was humming Iggy Pop, too! 8D
    – John
    Jun 11, 2015 at 5:25
  • And before Iggy Pop there was Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). So here's a question that never occurred to me before: When Iggy Pop sings "Of course, I've had it in my ear before" in the lyrics to "Lust for Life," is he making an oblique van Gogh reference?
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 9, 2015 at 5:09

The expression joie de vivre literally means joy of life.

  • 7
    Welcome to EL&U. I believe the question is asking for an equivalent English expression, not a direct translation.
    – choster
    Jun 10, 2015 at 17:50
  • Ironically the only correct, non-humorous, answer.
    – Fattie
    Jun 11, 2015 at 3:38

Both “raison d’être” and “joie de vivre” are terrific and perfectly colloquial, but for the fun of it:

Joie de vivre: maybe lust for life. Some say thirst for life but I like lust.

Raison d’être: maybe "It's the reason I get out of bed in the morning." or "Without it I would be lost."

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