Monday 19 July 2010

Missing Terms

Oscar Wilde said that the English didn't have the word "longueur", but they had the thing in great profusion. There are some concepts we have no words for, so we borrow from the French, the Italians and the Germans. There's even a word for them: "missing terms". Why don't we have our own words for these things? Perhaps we think that if they have no names they'll just go away...

agent provocateur
A disguised policeman who incites someone to commit a crime.

à la mode
In the fashion.

bella figura
Putting up a good front.

donnée What the Americans call a "given" – something you take as read.

enfant terrible Child-like person who is always "accidentally" blurting out unpleasant truths.

genre Category of fiction.

heure gris Moment in the day when everything always starts going wrong.

idee reçue One of those "facts" that everybody just "knows".

idiot de la famille Runt, scapegoat, last hen in the pecking order.

mauvais quart d’heure Those terrible few moments when you reach for your handbag and find it gone – before you remember you left it in your hotel room.

monstre sacré Person like Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, who is appallingly rude, abusive and self-centred but has such power over their coterie that they are surrounded by fawning courtiers.

mouton enragée Gentle, harmless person who is put upon by everybody else until one day they can't stand it any more and the others don't know what's hit them.

savoir faire Street smarts.

Schadenfreude Enjoying someone else's misery.

tour de force Game, set and match.

vis a vis
Conversational partner.

Outlook, mindset.

Spirit of the age.


  1. The English are not the only ones to borrow promiscuously.

    When I studied German at the Goethe Institut in Manchester we were often exhorted to mix a few foreign words with our German, to show we were gebildet. More often than not, the recommended foreign word was English,

    I recall our attention being drawn to a German Newspaper headline:

    'Pillen Boom in der DDR'

    referring to the number of inhabitants of East Germany suffering from depression - this was before the reunification of Germany.

  2. ... und die Kämpfen sind fair (Brecht)