A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a strong, sweeping vocabulary is worth even more than that. Armed with just a few cool words and expressions, any person can transform themselves into a well-educated world traveler—or at the very least give off the appearance of being one. If your goal is to sound sophisticated, then there is perhaps no better way to do so than to incorporate foreign words and phrases—so-called “loan words”—into your everyday vernacular. And this isn’t to say that you need to learn a new language entirely. Just throwing a French phrase or German word here or there will do the trick.
For cool words and phrases to start you off, look no further. We’ve rounded up a comprehensive compendium of terms—deployed by the coolest of the cool: the glossy-mag editors and Instagram influencers and bona fide artistes of the world—that will instantly give your speech a whiff of well-earned sophistication.
Need a way to use this Latin phrase in conversation? You could give a well-known movie phrase an upgrade (“Ad infinitum and beyond!”)—or, if movie lines aren’t your thing, you could use it to describe something that never ends (like the number Pi, or your to-do list).
When your best friend won’t shut up about their favorite new TV show, kindly let them know that you feel like the topic has been discussed ad nauseam, or “to the point of nausea.” If this doesn’t signal to your friend that you’re sick of hearing about how mind-blowing and just, like, totally life-changing, man, Westworld is, then perhaps nothing will.
You could go to a restaurant and ask for a table outside. Or, you could make an effort to incorporate more cool words into your vocabulary and ask if it would be possible to dine al fresco—open-air, or, more commonly, outdoors. You’ll hear this word thrown around a lot at highfalutin dining establishments and in the halls of interior design firms.
When a person is familiar with something or has a working knowledge of it, they are considered to be au fait with it. Just think about where you work. Hopefully you can say that you are reasonably au fait with what do you for eight hours (or more) every day.
When it comes to personal style, some people peacock—cover up in makeup and accessories and flashy clothing. Others don’t dabble with the bells and whistles, and, instead, prefer to take an au naturel approach. (Oh, and you can also use this term as a euphemism for “birthday suit.”)
If and when you have a discussion about today’s up-and-coming artists, make sure to describe a few of them as avant-garde if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about. This French phrase—used to describe musical acts like Sonic Youth, or cinematographic auteurs like Jim Jarmusch—refers to an artist who takes an unorthodox, anti-establishment approach to their work. Often, there’s an underlying social message, too. Cool artists deserve cool words!
Literally, “genuine,” or “real,” bona fide is used in common parlance to describe that’s attained (often unexpected) status. For instance, if a new TV show really skyrockets in the ratings, critics might describe it as a bona fide hit.
Consider yourself something of a witty wordsmith? Then it’s likely that you regularly toss around a bon mot (clever remark) or two in normal conversation.
Unlike the similar-sounding French phrase “bon appetit,” bon vivant is actually not a phrase at all, but a noun used in conjunction with a person who has “cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In other words, someone who’s memorized the menu at Le Cinq and can ID, by blind taste, the difference between Champagne and Brüt.
If you trust someone to handle a situation, then let them know that they have total carte blanche over it. This phrase, which literally means “blank document” in French, is used in English as a noun to describe a complete freedom to do as one pleases.
No, cause celebre isn’t a cause for celebration. The phrase actually refers to an issue—generally a legal one—that arouses controversy and popularity in the public eye either for better or for worse, such as the infamous O.J. Simpson murder case of 1994 and the Amanda Knox trials of the early 2000s.
Chutzpah is a Yiddish noun that you might see used in conjunction with a totally brazen individual, a maverick, the sort of person who possesses a healthy amount of gall. For instance: Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun—or Mission Impossible, or Edge of Tomorrow, or any of his films, really—has a whole lot of chutzpah.
Using the Italian word for “hello” and “goodbye” in everyday conversation will make people think that you just got back from a stint on the Amalfi Coast—even if you’ve never so much as left your home state.
Similar to a maestro or a connoisseur, a cognoscente is a person who has a profound knowledge and commanding mastery of a subject. And when you use cool words, like this one, in everyday parlance, people might just think you’re a cognoscente of orating.
Coup de foudre
Hopeless romantics tend to believe in coup de foudre, or what’s more commonly referred to as “love at first sight.” And seeing as French is known as the language of love, using this phrase will definitely score you some points in the romance department.
Crème de la crème
The best compliment you can give something is to call it the “cream of the cream.” Well, maybe in English this isn’t much of a compliment, but in French, this phrase—crème de la crème—is akin to calling something the “best of the best.”
Cri de coeur
If you feel passionate about a particular political or social issue, fight for reform with a cri de coeur. This French saying, which literally translates to “cry from the heart,” describes an exuberant exclamation of protest, whatever your cause may be.
De facto is a Latin phrase that refers to something that is actually happening—even though it might not be formally recognized (that would be de jure). To paint a picture: Say a CEO steps down, and, in the meantime, the COO has taken on all the responsibilities of the CEO—but has yet to receive approval to assume the gig, per the company’s board of directors. The COO is the CEO in practically every way but name. They are, in other words, the de facto CEO.
Going to the doctor after sneezing once might be perceived as de trop, or excessive. And if you ever go somewhere and you feel like you’re just taking up space, you could also describe yourself as being de trop (where in this case, it’s synonymous for “not wanted” or “in the way”).
You might hear du jour thrown around in restaurants a lot (the fish du jour, for instance, or the soup du jour), but this phrase also has applications outside of the dining room. Unbeknownst to many, these two French words combined can also be used as an adjective to describe something that is currently trending, like a style du jour or a TV show du jour.
If you and your friends decide to buy concert tickets together, then it can be said that you are buying those tickets en bloc. And if you all get to the concert venue and enter together, then one might describe you as entering en bloc, or “as a group.”
This French phrase pretty much means what you’d expect it to—but that doesn’t make you any less worldly when using it. On the contrary, using en masse in place of common phrases, like “in a big group” or “in a mass” will amplify any sentence, giving you a certain je ne sais quoi.
You’d be forgiven for spotting a trend: that all cool words in French start with en. This phrase is no different, and is, in fact, the coolest of cool words. En vogue describes something that is cool. In other words, en vogue is en vogue.
Nobody wants to tell someone that they’ve made a mistake or misstep, but it’s much easier to do so when you’re borrowing from another prettier language. Enter: faux pas. This phrase is used to describe any sort of slip-up in a social situation, and it’s a suave way to let a friend know about a fashion faux pas (say, wearing jeans to a wedding) they may be guilty of.
Not all of us are religious or share the same religious beliefs, so why should we all say “God bless you” when we hear a sneeze? Instead of unnecessarily bringing religion into a situation, make yourself sound more educated and worldly by deploying this German exclamation, which literally translates to “health” and has zero religious connotations whatsoever.
Literally, “the many,” this Greek-derived term refers the common folk who make up the bulk of society. Think of it as a sophisticated way to collectively refer to a group of “regular Joe”s.
No, this has nothing to do with Dorothy’s dog in The Wizard of Oz or the band famous for hit song “Africa.” It’s actually the Latin way of saying “entirely” or “as a total”—as in, “I’ve seen some of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, but I haven’t seen them in toto.”
Anywhere you can use the phrase “because of that fact,” you can also use the Latin phrase ipso facto. An example: You now have a vocabulary full of cool words and are ipso facto a more interesting person to chat with.
Joie de vivre
We all have that one friend—you know: the one with the infectious optimism, bright laugh, and vivid personality. That person has a whole lot of joie de vivre. This French phrase describes a general positive outlook and enjoyment of life, a “comprehensive joy” that radiates from the person living it.
You could wake up with a hangover. Or, you could tone down the crassness and wake up with a way cooler-sounding katzenjammer. This German word literally translates to “cat’s wail,” and it became associated with the dreaded aftereffects of drinking when people started to compare a hungover person’s groans of suffering with those of a wailing cat. Sure, you might not feel so cool when you have a katzenjammer, but at least you’ll sound it!
Though traditionally the French term laissez-faire refers to a government policy in which a ruling body does not regulate the free market, educated individuals use this phrase to refer to any approach that is very uninvolved and hands-off. For a secondary use, fashionistas—a group fond of cool words, to say the least—use it to describe a laid-back, exceptionally casual outfit.
Everybody makes mistakes—it’s just a part of being human. But if you want to own up to yours in an enlightened and honorable matter, then you can issue a mea culpa, or a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Basically, mea culpa is Latin for, “My bad!”
The next time you’re watching a cop show and hear a rugged detective talk about a criminal’s M.O., casually inform whomever you’re watching with that this acronym stands for modus operandi. This Latin phrase, describes a person’s methods of working, and is often used to describe affairs in the criminal justice system.
Ne plus ultra
See: crème de la crème. (Yes, the two are more or less interchangeable.)
“All of this talk about fascinating foreign words is really making me want to travel—and now I’m in the mood for a cheese sandwich.” That latter thought is a prime example of a non sequitur, or a statement with no relation to what was previously being discussed. Another use for the Latin phrase: Describing a situation in which someone links two unrelated things to come to an illogical conclusion.
Yes, even the upper class gets their own set of cool words as a descriptor. Nouveau riche describes someone (or a family) who became rich by their own means rather than from generationally passed-down family money. But be wary: there’s an undertone to this French phrase. With those who are nouveau riche, the implication is that the rich person it describes may lack the civility and class of someone who was born into wealth and status (like a Vanderbilt or a Hearst).
Taking someone to the museum for a first date? Let them know what a big fan of Picasso’s oeuvre you are. This word, lifted from French, is used to describe an artist’s entire lifework, and is as sophisticated as cool words get.
For an example of painting par excellence, look at Picasso’s oeuvre. (A note: When using this French phrase, it has to go after the word it’s modifying, rather than before it.)
It’s likely that you’ve heard this Latin adverb used before, but that’s not to say you actually know what it means or how to use it correctly, per se. The trick? Simply use this phrase anywhere you’d use the word “necessarily.” Here’s an example: “I don’t think Latin is a dead language, per se, but nobody really speaks it anymore.” It’s as simple as that. Who knew that cool words could be so easy to use?
Persona non grata
One of the last things you’d ever want to be is persona non grata. This phrase is used to reference someone who is unwelcome somewhere, most often a foreign country. And fun fact: Actor Brad Pitt was persona non grata in the People’s Republic of China from 1997 to 2014, thanks to his role in Seven Years in Tibet.
Using cool words in casual conversations will impress your colleagues and make you look like a well-traveled individual. Just make sure to use them with an air of pococurantism, or indifference, so you don’t inadvertently come off as pretentious.
You have Russians to thank for many things—like the radio, the television, and the word poshlost. Because it has no English equivalent, poshlost is hard to define, but Sergey Ozhegov’s Russian dictionary describes the term as referring to something that is “morally base, tasteless, and crass.” And as Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once explained: “Poshlost is not only the obviously trashy, but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”
This French phrase, which translates literally to “reason to be,” refers to a person’s ultimate purpose in life. And what’s the point of having a raison d’etre without also knowing cool words to describe it?
Deriving from the individually cool words schaden and freude—German for “damage” and “joy” respectively—this noun is used to describe an experience of satisfaction derived from someone else’s failure or embarrassment. For instance, it’s schadenfreude, which has no direct translation in English, that you experience when you witness an ex get broken up with by their new flame.
Tour de force
Any one of Shakespeare’s plays could be called a tour de force, given that the French noun refers to something that exhibits top-tier excellence in any particular field. Likewise, any individual performance at Shakespeare in the Park could be deemed a tour de force, since it likely required a Herculean effort and resulted in a an exemplary final product.
When something is the vox populi, it is either the majority public opinion or the voice of the population. In journalism, this Latin phrase is shortened to vox pop, and describes interviews conducted with people on the street in order to get a feel for the public opinion.
When someone mentions the zeitgeist of a time period, they are referring to the “spirit of the times”—that is to say, the various ideas, beliefs, and cultural fads that define a particular era. For instance, when speaking of the zeitgeist of America’s youth in the 1960s, you might hear of bouffants, rock n’ roll music, and everything tie dye. If you’re talking about the zeitgeist of today, you’ll likely hear a whole lot about social media squabbles, Beyonce, and the Avengers.