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It’s as French as…

Each year many of my students are surprised, disappointed, or even shocked that things that we call “French” in English are not really French at all — or their “Frenchness” is questionable at best. I decided that it was time for me to do a blog post about some of these things. Prepare to be at least a little surprised.

Here are 12 expressions in English where we use the word “French” for things that are not French.

French toast
What we call “French toast” (pictured above) is a not typically eaten in France. Its French name is pain perdu (meaning “lost bread” because the bread gets lost in all the goodness of the coating, I guess). So if you go to France, don’t expect to find a pile of French toast waiting for you for breakfast. You can’t order it in restaurants. The recipe for “French toast” can be traced all the way back to 4th century Rome where it was made just as it is today.

French vanilla
Vanilla is a bean from a tropical plant not grown in France. “French vanilla” is not a type of vanilla, but rather a type of vanilla ice cream, one made using a French technique that starts with an eggy, custard base.

French dressing
Somehow during the early 20th century “French dressing” came to be the name for a sauce made pinkish-red by adding ketchup, but it’s totally American. The French usually just mix up a simple vinaigrette out of oil, vinegar, and mustard. I don’t blame people for deciding to call it “French dressing” — naming anything “French” does make it sound a lot better. 🙂

French press coffee
In France, the “French press” coffeemaker, a pot for steeping coffee grounds with a plunger for filtering them out, is called a cafetière à piston or just a bodum, after the most common brand. Whether this type of coffeemaker was invented in France is not known for sure, but the first patent for one was taken out by an Italian designer named Attilio Calimani in 1929. So technically, this makes the “French press” Italian! This style of coffee became popular in France in the 1950s and was later referred to by American journalists as “French-press style coffee.”

French horn
In French the name given to the looping, tubed hunting horn that we call a “French horn” is a cor d’harmonie or just cor. By the late 17th century, the French were leaders in the manufacturing hunting horns, and they were credited with creating the circular “hoop” shape of the instrument. However, German makers were the first to devise crooks to make those horns playable in different keys, and Heinrich Stölzel invented the first horn with valves in the early 1800s. The International Horn Society refrains from utilizing the term “French horn,” considering that a misnomer. Instead they refer to the instrument simply as “horn.”

French fries
The phrase “French fries” evolved in North America at the end of the 19th century out of the longer “French fried potatoes.” Both Belgium and France claim “French fries” as their own. In the French language, which is spoken in both countries, they are simply pommes frites, literally “fried potatoes.” The French word for potato is pomme de terre (meaning “apple of the earth”), but in this case French speakers shorten it to pomme. In fact to shorten things even further, most French speakers refer to them simply as frites, the equivalent of our word “fries.”

“French fries” are now a huge part of American fast-food diets. Though eaten less often in France than in the USA, you can find frites in any French restaurant where dishes like steak frites (a simple steak served with fries) and moules frites (a bowl of mussels with a side of fries) are popular.

French manicure
The “French manicure” is actually a style of manicure invented in the USA. It began to be called a “French manicure” after that look made its way onto fashion runways. This style of manicure isn’t popular in France, but women there do tend toward a groomed look with a natural color. The classic technique of using light pink or nude polish on the nail and white polish on the tips that we call a “French manicure” is credited to American makeup artist Jeff Pink who was the first to come up with this design while working in Hollywood.

French braid
The term “French braid” has been around since the 1870s, but the braid style itself, where hair is gathered gradually from the sides of the head over the course of braiding, has been around for thousands of years, according to archeologists. It may have become associated with France, since anything’s being “French” is considered highly fashionable and stylish. One source that I consulted stated that in France this specific style of braid is often called an African braid or an Indian braid.

French twist
The vertically rolled and tucked “French twist” hairdo came to be in the 19th century, and was also associated with French high fashion. In French it is called a chignon banane because of its long, vertical shape.

French bread
In the US the name “French bread” has been applied to any white bread even vaguely baguette-shaped, whether or not it has the traditional crusty exterior. It has been used as a term in English as far back as the 15th century to distinguish it from other, coarser types of bread. In France there are boulangeries (bakeries) everywhere, and you can pick up a baguette for no more than € 1 (1 euro). The French would be shocked to learn that you can’t usually have a fresh baguette with every meal in the United States, since it is not ubiquitously available and would cost upwards of $3.

A French baguette would seem to be one thing that is still completely and totally French — obviously the French have been baking bread for a long time. However, many historians agree that the baguette derived most likely from the pain viennois. It is a fact that August Vang, an Austrian entrepreneur, is the one who introduced the steam oven to France. Without a source for steam during the baking, the crust of a baguette would be much less crunchy.

French quiche
Quiche is certainly a classic French dish, but quiche actually originated in Germany in a medieval kingdom called Lothringen, an area later renamed Lorraine by the French. Etymologies for quiche support the German claim that the French word quiche comes from Alsatian German Küche, a derivitive of the German Kuchen, or “cake.” And, of course, it's been debatable since the time of Charlemagne’s grandsons whether Alsace and Lorraine are French territory or German territory.

Pardon my French
The expression “pardon my French” is usually uttered in an attempt to excuse oneself for having used profanity or cursing, words which were unmistakably English, not French. Some have suggested that the expression stems from 19th century England when people actually used French expressions, totally aware that the person they were talking to may not understand them. People who say “pardon my French” know full well that what came out of their mouths wasn’t French, and the unfortunate listener does too!

Maybe we English speakers should say, “pardon my English” since our language is not always factual. 😀


“God can deliver us from the trial or through the trial.” — Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

“It’s all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.” —French management saying

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7 Comments on “It’s as French as…”

  1. #1 Elaine (Mrs. Kenneth) Carr
    on Nov 30th, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Loach, for your always-enjoyable column. We enjoy followup comments too.

    Elaine Carr – (for Ken too)

  2. #2 Tony
    on Dec 1st, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Very interesting! I’m also curious about things like German chocolate, German measles, German potato salad, &c.

  3. #3 Rob
    on Dec 1st, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Hmm, Tony. That would be interesting. Let’s see what other readers have to say about that.

  4. #4 Barbara H.
    on Dec 1st, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    I knew French fries weren’t French, but I hadn’t given much thought to the other ones. Interesting!

  5. #5 Theron
    on Dec 4th, 2017 at 7:00 am

    Russians also say “pardon my French” Clearly the French have just left a reputation wherever they go for being exceptionally foul-mouthed!

    One version of the origin in Russia is that back in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was fashionable to learn French, Russian nobility would obviously be taught proper formal French, not profanity. So after swearing in French they would apologise for speaking French badly (in case they made a mistake). I rather like this story, but it’s not true. The phrase was simply borrowed from English.

  6. #6 Rob
    on Dec 4th, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    That’s interesting, Theron. As far as the French being foul-mouthed, I don’t know if they’re any worse than any other people group. I think that that trait is just part of the human condition.

    It’s true that there’s a lot of French presence in Russian, and in France, I was surprised to learn that there’s been a good bit of borrowing done from Russian into French.

  7. #7 Carrie
    on Dec 8th, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    This was so interesting. Several of them I knew, but others were new to me. Thanks for taking the time to educate and entertain us!