English is a hybrid language. It depends on a multitude of borrowings for an enormous vocabulary and a unique richness of connotation. In the past two weeks we made an attempt to see how the Greco-Latin lexicon influences that of English. It is only natural in this context that we look into another source for the innumerable English borrowings. French contribution to Queen’s English is second only to Latin’s.
In fact, when we speak of French words, we generally mean Latin words once removed, for French is a Romance language. Though there has been a love-hate relationship between English and French, the latter’s impact on the former in the Middle Ages has been massive, transforming not only the way the English spoke, but probably even the way they thought.
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Much of the modern English jargon of government, politics, Church and law came into being around this time. The wave of French borrowings, however, is so distant that we often do not realize that words in question have been derived from French.
Sample this: alliance, authority, government, liberty, parliament, public, treaty, acquit, bail, clergy, jury, justice, pastor, verdict are just some of the words commonly used which have come from French words, the French words themselves having been borrowed from Latin.
Besides words, we use an astonishing number of French phrases. Though pronunciation may pose some difficulty, for they retain original spellings, their ability to lend vivid meanings cannot be denied.
Carte blanche (white paper) is blank paper containing only a signature giving another person permission to write her terms, a blank cheque.
Cause célèbre (celebrated case) refers to a case that arouses a wide interest; a situation arousing attention and discussion, a big deal.
Avant-garde (vanguard) connotes a group of artists who use an unorthodox, unconventional idea. Used with definite article ‘the’, it refers to new and modern ideas in art, music or literature. As an adjective, it means “offbeat”.
Faux pas (false step) is a major mistake, a social blunder.
Tour de force (turn of strength) is a feat of skill or strength, a work done to exhibit the ability of an author in a field not particularly her own, something done just to show she can do it.