Do You Know the Meaning of These Foreign Words We Use in English?

Do You Know the Meaning of These Foreign Words We Use in English?
Photo: A StockStudio, Shutterstock

It all started when I couldn’t remember if an apéritif was a before-dinner or after-dinner drink. (Correction: I said it was a before-dinner drink — the “per” in apéritif being reminiscent of the prefix “pre” — then my husband said he thought it was after-dinner, then I doubted myself.) Which, as someone who studied and spoke French for years, bugged me.

There are a lot of these words that we have adopted from other languages and use to varying degrees of frequency, but perhaps not often enough to have their definitions irrevocably rooted in our minds. Whether you once knew but forgot, or never knew but would like to, here’s a rundown of some foreign language words commonly used in English. Do you know what they all they mean?

(By the way, an apéritif is a pre-dinner drink. It’s a digestif that comes after, because you’re digesting. Love how that works.)

Ad nauseam: Latin for “to sickness” or, to an excessive degree. She repeated her argument ad nauseam until her brother gave up and agreed.

Al dente: Literally “to the tooth” in Italian. It describes how pasta should be cooked (briefly) to achieve ideal consistency, which is still firm. Not to be confused with “al fresco” which is where pasta should be eaten whenever possible, “in fresh air” (outdoors).

Annus horribilis: I think it’s safe to say, 2020 was an annus horribilis, the Latin phrase for “horrible year.” (And 2021’s not much better.) After all the misfortune, here’s hoping 2022 will be a much needed annus mirabilis (wonderful year).

Apparatchik: In Russian, the word “apparat” means “party machine;” thus anyone mindlessly stuck inside said apparat is an “apparatchik.” Traditionally, the word meant member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It has evolved into a derogatory descriptor for anyone obediently holding bureaucratic or political responsibility.

Blitzkrieg: In German, the term means “lightning war,” an offensive warfare tactic employed by Nazi Germany in World War II to strike swift, speedy blows on their enemies using “air forces and mechanised ground forces in close coordination.” Now, people use it to describe things like sports and aggressive publicity. For example: The marketing blitzkrieg for the film paid off in huge box office numbers.

Cognoscenti: Italian for “people who have superior knowledge.” The meaning of the play was so obtuse, it may only be known to the theatre world’s cognoscenti.

Coup de grâce: In French this is a “strike of mercy” or a blow by which someone mortally wounded is mercifully killed. His dismal LSAT scores were the coup de grâce to his law career. (Not to be confused with the French pièce de résistance, meaning “masterpiece.”)

De facto: In fact or in practice, regardless of official legal status. Sally made herself the de facto leader of the book club.

Gesundheit: You’ve probably heard (or said) this word after a sneeze. In usage, it’s the German equivalent of “bless you,” but literally, it means “health.”

Guerrilla: You may have heard the terms guerrilla warfare or guerrilla marketing. In Spanish, the word means “little war.” As a noun, it’s a person who engages in irregular, aggressive warfare, such as ambushes, raids, or sabotage; as an adjective, it describes being unconventional or radical.

Fait accompli: In French, an “accomplished fact,” meaning, something that has been done or decided and cannot be undone. Example: Do we have leeway to change the outcome or is it a fait accompli?

In situ: In the original position. The remains of the emperor were discovered in situ a thousand years later.

Ipso facto: Latin for “by the fact itself” or “by that very fact.” For example: Toddlers are happy playing with spoons and pots; ipso facto, they don’t need expensive toys.

Modus operandi: Most often heard as the abbreviation “m.o.” to mean, mode of operating (aka, habits, methods, or general way of doing things). Jane always revises her work at least five times before submitting; that’s just her m.o.

Nolens volens: OK, this one is not used often, (or perhaps ever outside of legal and arcane literary circumstances) but it should be! In Latin, it means literally “unwilling or willing,” aka, like it or not. Mum wants us all to dress up so, nolens volens, it’s happening. (And it’s pronounced just how you’d think, in perfect rhyming fashion, making it…chef’s kiss.)

Quid pro quo: Literally “something for something” or, a favour for a favour. Many social media influencers have a quid pro quo agreement with brands, in which they promote the company in exchange for products.

Sangfroid: French for “cold blood,” this term is used to mean (sometimes excessive) composure or coolness. Few people have the sangfroid to be a pediatric surgeon.

Sine qua non: Something that’s absolutely essential (literally “without which not”). Pumpkin flavour is the sine qua non of seasonal fall baking.

Spiel: Pronounced “shpeel,” this Yiddish term means “a voluble line of often extravagant talk” often used to sell or promote something. I can’t take a whole long spiel from a car salesman; can we buy our next car online?

Verboten: German for “forbidden.” Example: Do these kids know Santa’s not real yet, or is that subject verboten?

Vox populi: The voice of the people; aka popular opinion. Slideshows are the devil, according to the vox populi.

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