In British English and across Europe, the term Bureau(x) de change is used to describe what US English speakers would call a Currency Exchange or Foreign Exchange (office).

Why do we use a French term - or 'loan word' - for something which doesn't appear to be intrinsically French in nature or origin and is a relatively new concept, so has no historical significance or tradition?

I find it hard to believe that English speakers in Europe struggled to succinctly describe the concept of an office where you can exchange currencies and had to adopt the French term instead?

  • 3
    Maybe because currency exchanges want to be easily identified by people who don't speak English? May 8, 2012 at 11:08
  • 1
    These days, at least in the UK, you're just as likely to see 'Foreign Exchange'. May 8, 2012 at 11:12
  • 1
    @PeterShor Cross-language recognition is normally acheieved using a well-known symbol or sign; why would a French term be any more recognisable to non-English speakers?
    – Widor
    May 8, 2012 at 11:33
  • 6
    Perhaps at the time such bureaux first became common, French was the international language. The "lingua franca" as they say.
    – GEdgar
    May 8, 2012 at 12:12
  • 2
    The real question is: why isn't "lingua franca" a French phrase?
    – JeffSahol
    May 8, 2012 at 12:39

5 Answers 5


Perhaps the French term was picked up by English travellers visiting French speaking places (France and Switzerland), where the local language to describe their exchange offices. My guess is most of the tourists would change their money whilst abroad. The term then stuck and was by businesses used back at home, as the association of foreign-ness is appropriate.

Here's an Ngram of the terms in the English corpus. The capitalised and lowercase terms are roughly on par, and you can see the term becoming more popular.

English Ngram of Bureau de Change,bureau de change

And from the French corpus unsurprisingly has a larger scale, and starts earlier. Interesting to note that the capitalised term doesn't show up.

English Ngram of Bureau de Change,bureau de change

Checking some old books, bureau de change can be found in English 19th century travel guides for France and Switzerland, and also for money changers in London.

1858's The ABC, or, Alphabetical railway guide has adverts for S. J. Spry And Co. of 110 Leadenhill Street, London who are:

Money Changes, Foreign Coin and Bullion Merchants
Geld wechsel comptoir. Bureau de change.

The Welcome guest: Issues 37-75 of 1859 describes Switzerland:

So many large white buildings, too, with jalousied windows, on whose entablatured friezes you might read " Banque de Commerce," " Banque du Landgrafschaft," " Banque d'Escompte," " Banque et Bureau de Change."

A practical Swiss guide, by an Englishman in Switzerland of 1860 contains several Bureau de Change amongst its listings, such as:

Nouveautes, Silks, Shawls, &c. — Cluzeau Aine, opposite the Post.
Bureau de Change — Uytborck, 74 Montagne de la Cour : of the highest character. Capital of Belgium — a smaller Paris. Manufact. lace. English Embassy : on the Royal Park.

The Bankers' magazine, and statistical register, Volume 19, Part 1 of 1864 translates some financial terms between English, French and Italian:

Exhange office - bureau de change, m. - casa de cambio, f..

Charles Dickens' 1885 journal Household Worlds appears to mention it several times, including these descriptions:

... a "Bureau de Change" stood temptingly before him ; English notes and coins displayed in profusion in its wire-protected window, affording ample evidence that a large business was done in the current coin of that realm.

Both letter and "At Home" were dated from the same house in Regent Street, but the forer bore the business heading, "Bureau de Change."

  • 1
    Thanks for putting in so much effort and for using visualisation of the rise in popularity.
    – Widor
    May 9, 2012 at 9:21

I bet the real reason is because French used to be considered an international diplomatic language, the way English is now. Indeed American passports are still in both English and French.

Plus, France is the country closest to England, so changing pounds to francs was historically common. This may help explain why the practice is more common in the UK than Stateside.

  • In that case, many more such examples should exist. This cannot be unique or rare.
    – Kris
    May 13, 2012 at 13:18

The actual answer is that long ago the upper classes of Great Britain considered French a language of prestige and commerce and injected it wherever they could into speech- there are French phrases that we use all the time because of their obsession, because back then peppering your speech with French was a sign of refinement: pas de deux, fait accompli, coup d'etat, and so on. Hence Britain has an Exchequer while America has a Treasurer, but both look after the national piggy bank.


It is probably because around 60% of Modern English words are sourced from French, thanks to the Norman invasion of 1066, and subsequently almost the entire ruling class of England being not only French but French-speaking.

Curiously, a side-effect of this is that most of the 'Latin' words in English come via French, rather than directly from the Roman occupation.

Another curiosity is Churchill's 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender'. All the words in that sentence are good old Anglo-Saxon words, except the French origin 'surrender'.

Deliberate? A dig at the French? I like to think so, but I guess we will never know.

  • 2
    But do you think the naming of something as relatively recent as Bureaux de change would have been indirectly influenced by the Norman invasion? I'd have thought the need for high-street currency exchange only sprang up in the 60s and 70s as international tourism increased - why wouldn't "Foreign Exchange" have sufficed?
    – Widor
    May 8, 2012 at 16:30
  • Yes, absolutely. The French influence on 'officialese' is beyond doubt - even 'department' is of French origin. While you can argue that the word 'bureau' itself is not recorded until the 17th century, and its use for an government office until 18th century, the tradition of using French words was definitely established by the Norman Conquest. Even today, French origin words such as 'commence' are seen as a more educated register than older words such as 'start' or 'begin'. May 9, 2012 at 12:16

Possibly because they were or are mostly owned or run or manned by the French-speaking? (There are countries other than France that speak French.)

Why would I have a French sign for my business if neither I am French-speaking nor my customers are?

  • 2
    Do you have any evidence to suggest that most Bureaux de change are run by French-speakers?
    – Widor
    May 8, 2012 at 11:28
  • No. I'd have stated in my answer if I had any, rather than starting as "possibly."
    – Kris
    May 8, 2012 at 11:46
  • 3
    @Kris,Mitch: I've downvoted this answer because I think it's wrong. The possibility that bureaux de change are or were predominantly run by francophones seems unlikely to me, and user20908 offers no evidence or even rationale to support the claim. May 8, 2012 at 17:49
  • 1
    @Kris: Desist? Next? Trust? I really don't understand what you're referring to. Can you elaborate?
    – Mitch
    May 8, 2012 at 18:42
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    @Kris: Answerers are -not- entitled to an opinion. Answers on SE have the expectation of having some authority (even if unfounded, unverifiable), they should not be opinions here (perfectly OK for comments, but not for answers). This answer was stated with question marks, which are a sign of not knowing or doubt in one's opinion. Without the explicit question marks. "We don't say 'no knowledge.' That just isn't right."... this is not an opinion chat room. It is my opinion that this question doesn't even attempt to answer the question. If you doubt this you should bring it up on meta.
    – Mitch
    May 8, 2012 at 19:29

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