When it comes to foreign language study, vocabulary takes a significant amount of time. In general, there are two ways to learn a new word, by rote memory or repeated drills, and by word analysis including thinking up a mnemonic. If your preferred learning style is the latter for most words, you’ll find Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics to be a welcome addition to your personal library. The book is the first of its kind that combines a moderate amount of French etymology and made-up mnemonics in one single volume. It aims to help adults or young adults to learn French vocabulary, with a practical balance between scholarly research and light reading. This is both a pocket-size dictionary used as a reference, and supplemental study material used for leisure reading.

It is a well-known fact that cognates help foreign language learners study vocabulary, and a slightly less known fact that etymology or origin of words helps.[1] Unfortunately, as of today, there’s rarely any book on the market that explicitly utilizes etymological information to help learners memorize words. On the one hand, etymological dictionaries written by scholars focus on the task proper, i.e., providing etymology, usually not giving consideration to its practical value in helping people to learn vocabulary. On the other hand, there are books written to make use of man-made mnemonics, with no regard to etymology.[2]

Between the two ends, etymology and mnemonics, there is a long-stretched but maybe narrow gap that can be bridged with some training or practice. It is “long-stretched” because thousands or tens of thousands of words can be dealt with in this manner, and “maybe narrow” because many words that don’t “ring a bell” to an English speaker only need an easy hint or reminder for the learner to connect their meanings to their origins.

Take French word tort (“fault”, “wrong”) as an example. It is cognate with torque, torsion (“twisting”), and with the root of contort, distort. It literally means “twist”. Something twisted is likened to something wrong, a connection that is easy to understand and serves as a good memory aid for the word tort. Naufrage (“shipwreck”) does not appear to be related to any English word on first look. But word analysis reveals that this is a compound word, in which the nau- element is cognate with navy (from a Latin word that means “boat”) or with navigate, and -frage cognate with fracture. Combining “boat” and “fracture” into one image, you get the sense of “shipwreck”. (Knowledge of the Latin word meaning “boat” is not needed for this connection although it would further help if the learner knew the word.)

Unfortunately, not all words can make use of etymology to aid memory, for various reasons. The etymology may be too obscure or technical to an average reader, may bring up words that sound or spell too differently from any English word that could help, or may simply be unknown. Therefore, a different tactic has to be used to fill the gap, using artificial mnemonics. For example, manquer (“to lack”) has cognates in all major Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) but not English. We can use the mnemonic “A mangled man lacks a limb.”,[3] which not only makes a word that sounds like the French word to be remembered, but also creates a vivid scene that may strengthen the learner’s memory. Words like semelle ("sole of a shoe") have uncertain etymology, and they benefit from mnemonics as well, such as “The sole of the shoe smells!”

The current book will primarily rely on etymology, and only fall back on mnemonics when etymology is lacking or too obscure. While mnemonics stop serving any purpose and can be dispensed with after the learner fully remembers the word, etymology may be retained as knowledge, if the learner wishes, and in fact often does so, to go beyond just learning a foreign language. Thus, in a fun way this book offers the additional advantage in terms of expanding the learner’s historical and cultural background.

Not for pure scholarly research, but for practical use, any “irrelevant” details in etymology not conducive to vocabulary study are skipped in this book to avoid “pedantic” boredom. On the other hand, in case the “internal” history of a word is not enough to explain the origin, its “external” history is researched and provided. For example, espèces used in plural means “cash”, and it has the same etymon or source as épice (“spice”). From historical sources, we find that spices were used as currency for payment in the ancient times. Thus the two senses are connected. To further accommodate a general reader, among all languages, only knowledge of English is assumed. Minimum Latin and practically no words in other languages will be given in description of each word.

This book is for people to study French, specifically French vocabulary. The intended readers are adults and young adults only, since young children tend to complain that “I have to remember that hint”, referring to the etymology or mnemonic as an extra burden instead of an aid. Adults will be able to utilize their life experience and general linguistic knowledge, even if it’s implicit or dormant in their minds, in second language acquisition. Not only is the book useful to high school and college students, but it is also and perhaps more appealing to the people learning French outside of a school environment, because vocabulary acquisition becomes a more prominent obstacle in learning a foreign language when not following a textbook, where new words would be fixed and outlined in each lesson. Polyglots or people knowing or learning multiple languages, especially other Romance languages, will find this book particularly helpful. The more language experience, the better. Among other things, knowing an additional language may give you an advantage in spotting cognation not mentioned by this book due to the restriction that the reader is assumed to only know English. And in case of unhelpful etymology, there’s also extra advantage in conjuring up a better mnemonic that sounds and means closer to a word in that additional language you know.

When mnemonics have to be created, there’re tricks to help search for the best words or phrases. They are summarized in the Appendix.

References used by this book are as follows:

*, which uses various etymological dictionaries. Fast and convenient reference.

* Auguste Brachet, Etymological Dictionary of the French Language, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1878. This is a must-have reference for anyone serious about French etymology or even etymology in general. The sound changes of all the words that descend from Latin are phonologically explained. This unique way in lexicography brings to light the scientific nature of etymology and illuminates many a case that would otherwise remain obscured.

* Lexicographie of (Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales). Created by Centre national de la recherche scientifique in 2005, the CNRTL online lexicographie or dictionary is the authoritative source of French words for definitions and etymologies.

* Albert Dauzat, Jean DuBois, Henri Mitterand, Nouveau dictionnaire étymologique et historique, Larousse, 1971. Although the content is largely incorporated into the CNRTL, this dictionary is still consulted from time to time for its conciseness.

* Edward Pick, An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language, 1869. This is a nice-to-have supplement to Auguste Brachet’s dictionary.

* Various historical and argot (jargon) dictionaries, such as Friedrich Diez, An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages, 1864, translated from German; Lorédan Larchey, Dictionnaire historique d'argot, 1880; Lorédan Larchey, Les excentricités du langage, 1865; Lazare Sainéan, L'argot ancien: 1455-1850, 1972. Sense development of some informal words or slangs may be explained in these dictionaries.

*, a professional quality English language etymology web site created based on sources such as Oxford English Dictionary; Walter W. Skeat, Concise Dictionary of English Etymology;, the etymology section.

* An excellent short overview of the historical evolution of the French language.

* Peter Rickard, A History of the French Language, Routledge, 1989. A good book on this subject.

* Oxford School French Dictionary, 1997; Langenscheidt Universal French Dictionary, 1980; Larousse French Dictionary, 1971. These three basic dictionaries are used as a guide to determine inclusion of words; if a word being considered is not a headword in any of the three dictionaries (such as some relatively frequently used words of vulgar or obscene nature), generally it will not be included in this book. In addition, these basic dictionaries as well as including the forum discussions therein are regularly consulted to select the most appropriate definitions, and whether and what to add as additional information such as precautions, false friends, or anything else interesting. To add comments on false friends, various websites and Saul H. Rosenthal’s book, French Faux Amis: The Combined Book, have been consulted.

Tip There are times when it is not obvious whether an English word exists that is related to a given word in another language. For example, cuisse as a French word means “thigh” and, as a rare English word, means “armor to protect the thigh”. But the latter hardly rings a bell to a general reader. Fortunately, Google, like many other search engines, provides a site-specific search that can help us. In this case, we can limit the search to an English dictionary website and see all (or most) of its pages that mention the non-English word, with search keywords like cuisse. One of the search results is the page for the word Quixotic, and we quickly find that the name of the protagonist in the famous Cervantes novel Don Quixote actually has a meaning; it’s named for “thigh”. This information, or rather knowledge, certainly helps you remember the French word cuisse better than using the rare or obsolete English word cuisse alone. In case of French mèche (“candle wick”; “fuse of a bomb”), we quickly find its Latin etymon to be *micca according to Wiktionary or any French etymological dictionary. A site-specific Google search for its Latin etymon with keywords micca, returns a web page (among others) that mentions English match (the igniting device). Indeed, match and mèche share the same Latin word as their origin, a fact that greatly helps us remember the French word. When Wiktionary or any other source does not list the multilingual descendents of the etymon of the French word being studied as in the case of micca, or as in the case of cuisse lists unhelpful English descendents (such as coxa, “part of an insect’s leg”), checking to see all that an English dictionary has to say about the French word or its etymon sometimes can reveal a helpful English word-French word relationship, which otherwise would require a lot of thinking or trial-and-error to uncover.


§1. The words in this book are taken from the Lexique corpus, specifically

and are ordered by lemma frequency of usage in books (column freqlemlivres in the Lexique spreadsheet).[4] Simply put, the words in this book are ordered in descending frequency of usage. Listing the words in frequency order in a dictionary-like book offers the unique advantage that the reader has a better sense of how common the word is in real language use, and in writing, can better distinguish synonyms from the frequency perspective, e.g., choosing the more common essayer (“to try”) instead of the less so tâcher. The index at the end of this book lists all words in alphabetic order for easy lookup. Very common words (approximately the first two hundred in the list, e.g. faire) and very “easy” words for an English-speaking person (e.g. développer) are omitted. This book takes the first 7000 out of the Lexique corpus, but with all omissions for the said reasons, about 2600 headwords are included. Note that many French words are close to their English counterparts in every aspect, but the nuances in meaning may warrant inclusion; e.g. faillir in most common usage is not quite the same as fail in English, and is thus included with a special comment. However, there are a large number of French words that cannot be easily qualified as false friends and yet should not be literally translated according to the meanings of their English counterparts (e.g., époque in “J'avais 20 ans à l'époque.”, “I was 20 years old at the time”, not “epoch”). Such words may be excluded to make sure this book remains compact.

Because the words are listed in frequency order, definitions and descriptions of the headwords on later pages may be slightly more advanced and may refer to the headwords on earlier pages in definitions or as doublets, i.e. French words of the same origin. Skipping certain details in reading are perfectly acceptable.

§2. Headwords are in bold type, as well as in “See also”. Words considered to be linguistic units instead of part of the sentence are in italic, e.g., “English word foot is a cognate.” Words as definitions or meanings are enclosed in double quotation marks, except when they are definitions for the headwords. Definitions for headwords may occasionally include French synonyms, which are in italic. (French synonyms form part of headword definition generally only after this word occurred as a headword on an earlier page, i.e. only if the synonym has a higher usage frequency than the current headword.)

§3. Part of speech or word class, enclosed in parentheses, is obvious, such as n. for noun, adj. for adjective, interj. for interjection. They are only labeled in case of possible ambiguity. Gender is marked only if there’s an interesting point to make; e.g. critique means “criticism” as a feminine noun, but “critic” as a masculine noun. A. Brachet in his Etym. Dict. French Lang. remarked that “[in the case a concrete substantive or noun took an abstract sense] the concrete substantive is often masculine, whereas the abstract was feminine”. This was also observed by non-specialists such as Simone de Beauvoir (“most abstract entities are feminine”, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley). Lack of morpho-semantic justification notwithstanding, that observation serves as a convenient mnemonic, which will be reminded of in this book whenever appropriate.

§4. The keyword or keywords in a mnemonic, which provide a phonetic clue, are underlined. For example, the mnemonic for the headword vite (“quickly”) is “He has a quick wit.”

§5. Two or more headwords are in one entry (i.e. paragraph) if they belong to one lexeme [5] or one is derived from another, and their frequencies are not too far apart, and their spelling forms and meanings are not too different. They are listed in a position according to the frequency position of the first of these words in the Lexique corpus. Within this entry, the more frequent headword is given first. For example, tâche (“task”) and tâcher (“to try”) are two headwords in one entry, which is listed in the position according to the frequency of tâche, and tâche is given before tâcher because tâche is more frequent than tâcher; blessé and blesser are in the same entry positioned in the book according to the frequency of blessé, and blesser is given after blessé due to the lower frequency of blesser. (Normally a simple past participle of a verb would be omitted from this book. But blessé is included as a headword because of its relatively high frequency and a somewhat interesting note: it is a false friend of English bless.) Note that not all forms of the same lexeme are grouped under one headword; those with significantly different meanings, with stem changes, or with a large frequency difference may still be listed separately, if they warrant inclusion at all.

§6. The word “root” is only used to refer to the root of a word, synonymous with “stem” in most contexts, not to the source or origin of a word or etymon, as used in some other literature.

§7. Some common etymological rules are briefly outlined below. To remember the word, reverse the etymological evolution. Many English words came from Old French, whose ancestor is Latin. Once such a word entered English, it did not go through as much phonological change as in French, thus better preserving the original Latin form.

Needless to say, it takes some practice to make good use of etymology in learning new words. For example, you’ll need to think of or mentally reverse the development of the word in history (from oi to e or i, é to es or s), try splitting a word in different locations (pénombre into pén- + ombre instead of - + nombre), among other tricks. Hopefully this book offers essential if not minimal help in this regard.

§8. Some words have many meanings. But only the basic ones are given, and if possible to determine, the more common meanings are given first, unlike in most dictionaries where the basic or literal ones are listed before the derived. Different meanings are separated by semicolons instead of commas.[6] After all, this is not a dictionary primarily for meanings, but instead for etymology as well as mnemonics to facilitate self-study of vocabulary. Which meaning or meanings are basic or are the reason for inclusion of this word into the Lexique word frequency list in that ranking position is not always easy to determine. For example, the word botte, ranked 1751, has meanings of “boot”, “bundle” and a few others. Only “boot” and “bundle” are included based on the fact that a few basic French dictionaries (see References above) omit the others. Unfortunately, not all words are obvious, and a best-effort guess will have to be made.

§9. Cognates are two or more words, each in its own language, which are regularly (i.e. following a common pattern or according to certain rules) derived from another common word (etymon) in a different language. This book traces word origin up to Latin, occasionally beyond Latin or to other languages. If a common word is found only in a remote ancient language such as Proto-Indo-European, for practical purposes, cognation is generally not acknowledged, but sometimes is briefly mentioned if it helps with word study. Cognates are not doublets, which are two words, both in the same language, that are derived from another common word in a different language. Technically, cognates are distinguished from loanwords, which are borrowed. If we use > and < to denote “developing into” and “deriving from”, respectively, and suppose French word F < Latin word L < Proto-Indo-European word PIE > Proto-Germanic word PG > English word E, we can say that F and E are cognates (as in the case of English do and French faire, from PIE *dʰeh₁-). On the other hand, primarily as a result of the Norman conquest of England in year 1066, a large number of English words directly came from Old French, which is the ancestor of Modern (as well as Middle) French, close to Latin. If both a French word F and an English word E are from one common Old French word, technically the English word can only be considered a loan or borrowing from Old French because Old French is not the proto-language of English. This book, however, may still loosely call E and F cognates since the word cognate itself is already not so strictly used among educated English speakers that are non-specialists. In this sense, sucre and sugar are considered cognates in this book as they are both from a common Old French word.

§10. The book assumes no strict format for each entry. Free text format is the best option to provide appropriate amount of usage notes and warnings, such as “Not to be confused”, “false friend”, “Note the first meaning, which may not be easy to guess”, to list a few. Unlike other sources that utilize etymology to assist in vocabulary study, this book makes a great effort to not miss any apparent disconnection between etymology and modern meaning of the word, and failing that, explicitly acknowledges it, usually followed by a best-effort mnemonic, as in “The meaning of ... may be due to ...”, “It’s not clear how the sense .... Use a mnemonic such as ...”. Even a seemingly casual mention of an interesting fact (as in “It’s interesting that ...”) is meant to strengthen the learner’s memory.

Everything done in this book is an attempt to achieve one goal only: help you remember the words. This is particularly helpful in initial encounter with a new word, when you use this book to gain advantage in the form of a clue or hint in order to avoid a completely blank mind when seeing the word again not long after you have learned it. But in the end, the reader is still required to study the words, combined with a large amount of reading or listening, which supplies ample context to the otherwise isolated word study. Etymology or mnemonics may indeed become a burden instead of an aid without genuine hard work.

For the usage frequency table based on the Lexique corpus and used by this book, book errata, my contact information, and other information, please visit

[1] Cognates are words in different languages that are derived from the same word in their common parent language. Technically, they are different from loan words. This will be further explained later.
[2] Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews’s Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, and Michael Gruneberg’s Spanish by Association, doing an excellent job as intended, provide good examples of memory by mnemonics only.
[3] In this book, underlined text refers to the word or words that serve as the key in the mnemonic or a “linkword” as some people call it.
[4] Lemma (lemme in French) is the canonical or dictionary form of a word; e.g., go is the lemma for goes, went, going, gone.
[5] Lexeme is the set of words comprising the lemma or canonical form (see above) and various inflected forms; e.g. go, goes, went, gone, going form a lexeme.
[6] Most dictionaries list two words that happen to be spelled the same in two separate headword entries. This book merges them into one entry or paragraph, separates their meanings with a semicolon and points out that they are two distinct words.

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