Tuesday, September 18, 2018

10 Common Foreign Phrases Used in English

Sometimes a common foreign phrase works so much better than an English equivalent would that it just becomes part of our language in its original form. Here’s a list of such phrases you should be familiar with.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character spoke the words, “Hasta la Vista, baby,” in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, who would have thought he’d help cement a Spanish expression that already received a fair amount of use into everyday vernacular?

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a foreign word or phrase part of everyday English. I hope the ten common foreign phrases in this list are ones you’ve at least seen before. Here are the meanings for each of them, beginning with the movie line.

1. Hasta la Vista

Spanish — It’s an informal way of saying “see you later,” but in terms of a literal translation, the closest we can get is, “until we see each other (again)”.

2. Mazel Tov

Yiddish — Literally, it means “good luck”, but it’s used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.

3. joie de vivre

French — Not only the enjoyment of life but an enthusiastic, exuberant joy of living. It’s the kind of thing all of us would like to have every day of our lives, but seemingly few of us manage to pull off, which is why those who seem to do it well are given such a fancy descriptor.

4. Mi casa, su casa

Spanish — This is an expression of hospitality: literally, it means, “My home is your home.”

5. Persona non grata

Latin — Here’s a title you want to make sure you never earn: it means an unwelcome, unacceptable or undesirable person. And you though our Latin-speaking ancestors had better manners, didn’t you?

6. Que sera, sera

Spanish/Italian/French — Doris Day popularized this song in the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, turning into a hit that would associated with her for the rest of her career. In the song, lyrics explain that it means, “whatever will be will be.” Literally, It means, “what will be will be,” a suggestion that we must deal with what fate throws our way and we can’t know what the future holds. The phrase translates similarly in multiple languages, so multiple ethnicities claim the phrase as having originated with them. Regardless of where it began, it’s been around for a while: Wikipedia mentions one of the phrase’s earliest documentations coming from an English aristocrat who chose the phrase as his family’s heraldic motto in the 16th century.

7. c’est la vie!

French — If you translate it literally, it means, “it is the life”. If you translate it based on how it is used, it becomes “that’s life” or “such is life”.

8. je ne sais quoi

French — You’re having a difficult time describing or naming a certain quality or aspect of something. So you drag in this rather presumptuous French expression which means, “I don’t know what”. Certain people who one admires but can’t quite place a finger on what it is about them that’s so admirable are said to have a je ne sais quoi. And by the time you spell it correctly, you could probably have come up with a few ideas of what that quality is, anyway.

9. quid pro quo

Latin — I used this phrase recently in a Facebook status of all places, pointing out to those in my friends list that if they send me an invitation to “like” their page, they should either already have liked mine or expect to be asked to do so. Quid pro quo, as you might have guessed, means a favor or request that’s granted with the understanding that something in return is expected.

10. ad absurdum

Latin — This phrase, which is rarely seen but fun to work into a conversation once in a while when it’s least expected just to watch people’s reactions, means “to the point of absurdity”. Keep in mind: the presidential campaign is starting up, so I imagine it’s a safe bet that we’ll have occasion to use it early and often against both sides.

Your Turn:

What are your favorite common foreign phrases that you use from time to time?


  1. Here is a little trans* culture…
    There is a conference that I used to attend that ended their banquet with “Que sera, sera” and we all sang along. For many it was the one and only time that they got out of the house all year. So for them it was very emotional.

  2. My son learned “¡Muévete!” from me at quite a young age, usually said when he was dawdling along picking up sticks and/or rocks and generally being in the way/slow. He took German in high school, but still knows at least that one not-so-common Spanish word.
    Ever since a trip to Italy a couple of years ago, I find myself saying, “Prego” when I’m finishing something or when I’m about to do/say something/leave. I use it both as “Prego!” (~~”Finished” “Ta-dah!!”) or “Prego”?/! (~~”Are you / I am ready?/!” usually in a hurry). Once in awhile, I’ll use it to mean “you’re welcome” as well. It’s a pretty darn versatile word!
    Then there’s “Donkey Shane”, “Bitte(r)n”…but that’s just a family joke from my husband’s side. 😉

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.