6 More Foreign Expressions English Stole

Recently, we listed some foreign expressions that have become standard phrases in the English language.  We’re back again for part 2 to examine where these phrases come from, what they mean, and why we use them so often. Which are your favorites?


À la mode

(pronounced “ah la mode”)

Literal French meaning: “according to the fashion”; is used to mean “fashionable”

  • Served with ice cream on top (US)
  • In fashion; trendy (however, this usage is old-fashioned)

There are a few stories as to how this expression came to be associated with ice cream in the US, but it’s not clear exactly which is true; in any event, there is no such connection in French!

Would you like your apple pie à la mode? 

A la mode
Who doesn't love a bit of desert à la mode?

C’est la vie.

(pronounced “say lah vee”)

Literal French meaning: “That is life”

  • Such is life; these things happen

This is a common expression people use when something less than ideal happens. It’s a way of admitting that something didn't go your way while still saying you won’t be overly upset about it; after all, it’s normal for life to have both good times and bad times.

I missed my connecting flight by 10 minutes, so I’ll be stuck in the airport for a few hours waiting for the next one. C’est la vie! 

c'est la vie
Things don't always go the way we planned. C'est la vie.


Prima donna

(pronounced “PREE-ma DON-nah”)

Literal Italian meaning: “first lady”; used to describe the lead female singer in a singing company

  • Someone who is temperamental and difficult to work with

The term was first used to describe talented singers. Because the most talented singers could make difficult demands without fear of being fired, the term has come to be used for anyone with a large ego. The term diva, also from Italian, is very closely related and also carries the connotation of being difficult to work with.

She can get away with being a prima donna because she’s such a talented cook.

Primma Donna
We can all be a bit of a prima donna sometimes.

Lingua franca

(pronounced “LIN-gwa FRAN-ka”)

Literal Italian meaning: “Frankish language”; this was the name of a particular language, a simplified version of Italian used in sea commerce

  • A language used systematically to communicate between people who don’t share a native language

Although Lingua Franca originally referred to a specific language, it has since come to mean any language that is used as a common speech of communication between different people, especially when it is not the native language of any party involved.

English as become the lingua franca of international business.

lingua franca
How many languages do you know?


Smorgasbord (originally smörgåsbord)

(pronounced “SMOR-gas-bord”)

Literal Swedish meaning: “open-faced-sandwich table”; the name for a Scandinavian meal served buffet style with multiple hot and cold dishes on a table

  • Any buffet with a variety of dishes to choose from
  • Any situation in which there is the choice between a variety of appealing options

The original Swedish term applies to a specific type of celebratory meal in Scandinavia, but the term in English has taken on a much wider meaning.

Since I was trying to get rid of the odds and ends in my fridge, I put together a smorgasbord of different things for dinner.

The university offers a smorgasbord of course options to its students.

Sounds delicious!


Yin & yang

(pronounced “yin” and “yang”)

Literal Chinese meaning: the two opposite principles that interact to influence destiny

  • Used to describe two different things that complete each other and somehow contribute to a specific result or whole

In Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang represent specific aspects of light and dark, feminine and masculine, etc., but in English the actual descriptions of the yin and yang are not as important as the fact that they complete each other.

They’re the perfect couple; she’s the yin to his yang!

ying yang
A little bit of balance is always helpful!

There you have it: 6 more foreign expressions that have made their way into everyday English. Any other favorites you’d like us to write about? Let us know in the comments!

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