My knowledge of French is very rudimentary, but one common theme I noticed in English words borrowed from French is that their meaning becomes so much more intense.

To give just a few examples,

  • French ancienne = old vs English ancient = very, very old.

  • French sauvage = wild (e.g. fleurs sauvages = wildflowers) vs English savage.

  • French marche = walk vs English march (like the soldiers).

How did this situation come about, and why do English words borrowed from French often tend to become so much more intense in their meaning? Someone told me that the words of French origin are just more literary, but my impression is that their meaning is amplified manyfold.

  • 2
    I tend to say instead in English these words are more much specific than in French, it is not a question of intensity. But, in French ancien means also very old (old = vieux); sauvage = wild & savage; marche = march & walk. The meanings are broader than in English.
    – amegnunsen
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 20:30
  • 5
    It may be that (English) more often borrows words for the purpose of applying specific/niche descriptions. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 20:44
  • 4
    Also, very small sample size. What of beef, beer, blouse, chef, forest, etc. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 21:13

1 Answer 1


It's because of a generalized phenomenon where loans generally have a narrower, more specific meaning in their destination language than in their original language. The best example is in my opinion the inuktitut word ᐃᒡᓗ iglu which simply means "house", whereas english igloo means a special kind of house, made of ice, such as is made by inuit people.

Other examples include "Schnaps", which simply means "liquor" or "spirit" in German, but is used to mean specifically german spirits in French and in English, "safari", which is a swahili word meaning "journey", etc.

I should add that not all loans are affected by such semantic narrowing. Indeed, sometimes it goes in the sense of a semantic broadening, and take on a more general meaning in the destination language.

  • I would say not that not all loan (sic) are affected by this kind of semantic shift but rather that not all loans are affected by the same kind of semantic shift or different loans are affected by different kinds of semantic shift Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 18:46
  • I've known more than one person to be surprised at getting light pink cooked ham in Italy having seen prosciutto on the menu. In the US, at least, that word denotes prosciutto crudo.
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 0:02

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