This piece first ran six years ago. It’s a worthy repeat on a day when I am very tied up in other things. I will explain shortly.
Comprenez-vous? Since language is equal parts communication of ideas and status, conversational bits of French have long been a handy way to say, “I am educated.” French was used as the court language of England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 until Henry V in 1413 (which, as the father of high English, has a lot to do with why Shakespeare gave him a good treatment). An estimated 28% of English words are French in origin, but the words and phrases absorbed directly are the ones that set you apart. They’re still used in the UK, at least in high-toned magazines like the Economist, but in the US it’s more likely to come off as obnoxious.
I have at times called this “Gentlemen’s French”, or what you have to know to read old or educated books. Naturally, fine ladies can use them for the same purpose, so the term seems rather stale. I’m leaning towards “Cross-Channel French” or “French Across the Water” to include Americans, even if we rarely use it as the British upper class still do.
You may prefer to think of these words and phrases as “Cocktail French”, so pour something into stemware and grab a piece of cheese to get into the mood. Here is my list of French words I think every English speaker should know – for the fun, if not the hoity-toit.