Foreign Expressions from A to Z

Create an ad hoc committee, commit a faux pas, collect kitsch.  Because English is derived from many other languages, phrases like these are the currency of daily communication in business, government, news and conversation.  Their use often frustrates readers who don’t know or have only a vague idea of what these expressions mean. Here’s an alphabet’s worth of definitions to clarify foreign words and phrases that routinely find their way into the English language.

 

AD HOC (ad hok) [Latin: for this purpose or specially] For a special purpose. An ad hoc committee was appointed to handle the project.

 BÊTE NOIRE (bet nwar) [French: black beast] Anything one avoids or dreads; a bugaboo. For a solitary person, a party can be a bête noire.               

CARTE BLANCHE (kart blawnsh) [French: a blank page] Full discretionary power. With an unlimited budget, she had carte blanche to plan the event. 

DÉJÀ VU (French: (day-zha voo) [French: already seen] The sense that one has already seen or done something in the past  Hearing of coming budget cuts, the manager had a twinge of déjà vu.

 E.G. [Latin for exempla gratia] For example. Do not use interchangeably with i.e. (See i.e.) Donate nonperishable items;  e.g., canned goods. 

FAUX PAS (foe-pah) [French: false step] An offensive social act; an embarrassing slip. He committed a faux pas by asking the overweight lady when she was expecting her baby. 

GAUCHE (goash) [French: left, as in direction] Clumsy; lacking in tact or ease of manner. A lesson in etiquette will prevent one from being gauche at dinner parties.

 HOI POLLOI (hoy polloy) [Greek: the many] The masses, the majority. The aristocrat paid for a box seat because he did not want to sit with the hoi polloi.

 I.E. [Latin for id est] That is. Do not use interchangeably with e.g. (See e.g.) Only original English texts are studied (i.e., those by authors from English-speaking countries).

 JUNTA (hoon tah) [Spanish: joined] A military group or faction taking power after an overthrow. The junta brought stability to the populace--but not freedom.

 KITSCH (kitsh) [German: artifacts of low quality] Art or literature of cheap, tasteless, popular, sentimental quality. Tourists often buy kitsch at souvenir stands.

 LAISSEZ-FAIRE (lessay fare) [French: let do] Policy of noninterference. Ending tariffs, the government adopted a laissez faire policy.

 MEA CULPA (maya kulpa) [Latin: my fault] An acknowledgment of one’s guilt or responsibility. The politician’s bland apology was not the mea culpa the public had expected.

 NON SEQUITUR (non sekwitoor) [Latin: it does not follow] A statement that does not logically follow from what preceded it. The answer “blue” was a non sequitur to my question, “What would you like to eat?”

 OMBUDSMAN (ohm budz men) [(Swedish: commissioner, agent]  An official who looks into complaints by individuals against authorities. An ombudsman resolved the senior citizen’s tax issue.

 PER [Latin: through, by means of] Use as per se, percent, per person but not as per your conversation. Use according to.

 QUID PRO QUO (kwid pro kwo) [Latin:     something for something] An action performed or a thing done in exchange for another. I did a favor without exacting a quid pro quo.

RAISON D’ÊTRE (rehzon detra) [French: reason to be] Reason for being. Profit seems to be the raison d’ être of business.

 STATUS QUO (stat us kwo) [Latin: state in which] Existing state of affairs. Never one to accept the status quo, he initiated major changes.

 TÊTE À TÊTE  (tate a tate) [French: head to head] A private dialogue between two people. The lawyers settled the issue in a pre-trial tête à tête.

 UBI SUNT (oobi sunt) [Latin: where are (the days of yesteryear)] Literary theme of yearning for a lost past. Longfellow’s poem about idyllic life in Acadia reflects the ubi sunt theme. 

VIS-À- VIS (veez a vee) [French: face to face] In relation to; compared to. The position of the union vis-à- vis the administration is contentious.

 WUNDERKIND (woon der kind) [German: child prodigy] The wunderkind solved calculus problems at age seven.

 XANTHIPPE (zan tippy) [Greek: Socrates’ wife] A shrew. A clone of Xanthippe, she issued orders all day long.

 YIN & YANG (yin and yang) [Chinese: dark and bright] Two opposite yet complementary forces that produce all that comes to be in the universe. Yin is feminine and yielding while yang is masculine and assertive.

 ZEITGEIST (tsite giste) [German: time spirit] The spirit of the times. In step with the Zeitgeist, the company promoted respect for diversity. 

Sources: Dictionary of Confused Words and Meanings by Adrian Room, 1985; Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases edited by Jennifer Speake, 1997.

 

Susan B. Kline Business Communications
Longmeadow, MA

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