Au pied de la lettre - In English?

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
There have been Threads on this French expression already, and we know it means "literally" (prendre les choses au pied de la lettre = to take things at face value, literally...).

My query is about English usage and the use, in English, or not, of this expression. I have come across it used in an English text, as if it was going to be understood by the average reader (cf enfants terribles, raison d'être etc).

Was the person using the expression a snob, or a francophile/francophone, or is the expression actually used in English?

If that is the case, how would it be pronounced?

Comments welcome.
  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Sorry, this expression is completely alien to me.
    I have never heard it or read it.
    Except as a student when I read Eyeless in Gaza and skipped it rather than try to understand it.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    The expression is very commonly used in French and there have been 2 Threads on it in the English-French Forum, I believe (English-speakers asking about the meaning, from what I saw, but I only glanced at the Threads...).

    I always assumed the expression was not used in English but came across it a few months ago. I must admit I do not remember the context.

    If this is a one-off and the writer was merely showing off his knowledge of French - we might as well forget it and close down the Thread!...


    English - Australia
    If it's used in English, it's used very infrequently compared to other borrowed expressions such as enfant terribles, raison d'être, bête noir, and so on, which I see reasonably often in the press, particularly the arts pages.

    My guess is that it appears in hifalutin texts only and wouldn't be understood by the average reader.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK

    Thanks and this confirms my hunch - this is exactly what I thought. In other words, an expression that is recognised in English as such, but rare and for the sophisticated (or pseudo---) writers.

    I wonder how one would pronounce it in English, if one were to use it in conversation - to impress and confuse Mr & Mrs Jones, that is.


    English - Australia
    Another guess, but anyone who uses the expression probably has some command of French...especially older generations, who went to school when French was they probably pronounce it correctly, or almost so.

    It's a tough one to pronounce for someone with no knowledge of French...

    oh pee Ed de lah lettrrah?


    Senior Member
    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I have never heard the expression used by anyone in English unless it was by someone who speaks French and who was consciously using the French expression. In other words, it does not appear to have entered English in the same way as the other expressions you mention in your post.


    Senior Member
    1782 The Romans...loved Iq \x o\xyt&au pied de la lettre: Hor. Walpolb, Letters, Vol. viu. p. 305 (1858). 1830 frequently agree, au pied de la lettre, both in their language, and in the order...of their narratives: Edin. Rev., Vol. 51, p. 529. 1837 but many a fiery Calabrian merited not the name at the commencement of the struggle, and at no time indeed must the wholesale executions of the French be taken an pied df la lettre as including only banditti: C. Mac Farlane, Banditti cV Rotten, p. 49. 1840 Continues to run At the rate it begun, I And, au pied de Uttrt, next brings in a tun ! Barham, Infolds. Leg., p. 128 (1865). 1850 a wild enthusiastic young fellow, whose opinions one must not take aupiedde la lettre: Thackeray, Pendennis, Vol. I. ch. xi. p. 108 (1679).
    The Stanford dictionary of anglicised words and phrases

    By Charles Augustus Maude Fennell, John Frederick Stanford

    How is it pronounced in an English text? Atrociously, in the case of most readers.
    James B did not ask how it should be pronounced by English speakers. The answer to that question is a matter of grave, nay frivolous speculation.

    Ann O'Rack

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Never heard it, didn't understand it, never used it, can't see any reason why I would want to.

    Looking at the quote in Cuchuflete's post, the dates indicate that it might possibly have had some usage in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s but it would seem that people have (sensibly, in my view) dropped it from common usage.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I was not asking how it should be pronounced since, really, one is going to be terribly snobbish about it all and say - the French way, of course. :D I was asking how it is likely to be pronounced by an English-speaker who may not be fluent in French as such, as a borrowed expression.

    From what various contributors have said, the expression is known - and we have quite a bit of historical perspective here - but is not common or current in today's English.

    It may look arcane, but it should be pointed out that 'at the foot of the letter' is not, strictly speaking, different from an expression such as 'to stick to the letter of...' (as opposed to 'the spirit of...'), which is commonly used in English, and this is precisely the intended meaning. In other words, a literal interpretation.

    I originally posted up my query because I came across the expression used by a BE speaker, or writer. It could have been in a newspaper article (in the British national press), a few months ago. I was surprised because, precisely, I had always assumed it was not used or known in English.

    To conclude on the question of English phonetics: how is it pronounced? I would say, based on what contributors have said, that: It isn't (since it is barely or never used today).


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    It's one of those expressions that commonly occurs in lists of French expressions used in English, and nowhere else. Google Books finds a couple of contemporary English uses: in the introduction to the Penguin Nicomachean Ethics; in a footnote in Needham's Science and Civilisation in China.

    I'd render it /əu 'pjei də la 'letr(ə)/, i.e. more or less the nearest English sounds to your actual French.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I think you have summed up the position very clearly, and your pronunciation suggestion sounds good to me - close enough to the French, yet English enough to be usable (in English).

    S.F. Ukridge

    New Member
    Among other incarnations, a person employing "au pied de la lettre" is neither a snob nor a francophile, but merely P.G. Wodehouse, often a resident in France, but scarcely considered a snob and perfectly willing to explain foreign phrases to the sort of average reader exemplified by a dishonest butler running an impromptu casino at an aunt's residence during her absence:

    << Excessive quotation removed. >> If you had been watching my face, you would have seen a twinkle in my eye. I was kidding you, old friend. These pleasantries are not intended to be taken au pied de la lettre.”

    He said he didn’t know what au pied de la lettre meant, and I was supplying a rough diagram when an underling of sorts appeared and told him he was wanted at the front.

    --Chapter IV of "Success Story" 1947
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    Member Emeritus
    English UK Southern Standard English
    As the previous posters have said, there are quite a number of French expressions which have found their way into ordinary everyday English, but I don't think this is one of them. I did French to A level at school, but I'd struggle to envisage a situation in which I'd actually want to use this phrase in English.

    Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Kevin Guinagh's Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, THE H.W. WILSON COMPANY, NEW YORK, lists the phrase as:

    Au pied de la lettre [oh pyay duh lah leh-tr] Fr.—Literally; exactly.

    GS :)

    (I think the pseudo-phonetic representation is atrocious)
    I have not heard or read it in AE. However, assuming some 'highfalutin' writers have used it, I'd assume very few monolingual Anglophones--at least in North America--would understand it or could pronounce it.

    I suspect it's in the same category as 'faute de mieux', which is in English dictionaries:

    [M-W unabr] <sherry made him dopey but he drank it faute de mieux>

    Whenever I get pompous and use it, I see immediately it's not understood except by a bilingual person.
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    Senior Member
    English - British
    One of the standard, though not one of the most common, French phrases used in English (familiar to me since my youth).

    If we take it literally, it means 'at the foot of the letter'.
    If we take it metaphorically, it means 'if we take it literally'.

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I've read "au pied de la lettre", but I don't think I've read it in an English text.
    "I'm dying for a cup of coffee - not dying au pied de la lettre, you understand" ~ It doesn't sound right; the words are not the mots justes. ;)

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I think the consensus view is that it is a French expression which is rarely (or very rarely) used in English, and would not be understood by most 'ordinary' English speakers. From what I can see, it belongs to that category of foreign words that are used in English by educated people who know the foreign language in question -- some of those being arty or snobbish types that are trying to impress.

    The P G Wodehouse quote is interesting in this respect. Clearly, the expression is known in English, even though it may be little used.


    New Member
    English - United States
    I am reading "Mr. Bazalgette's Agent", a British mystery published in 1888, and ran across this:

    "I have been exchanging confidences with the waiter; au pied de la lettre, he was inclined to be communicative, so I let him talk."

    More support for the theory that pre-20th C., it was in more common usage - the character speaking is as certainly among the 'educated people who know the language in question'.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Thanks for quote. An interesting example of the use of the phrase in English -- and a use that one would not find in French, I believe (in terms of where the phrase is placed in the sentence and how it is used)...


    Senior Member
    Castellano rioplatense
    I came upon the expression, translated, in Mrs Gaskell's 'Wives and Daughters'. (Actually, that's why I did the search. I understood the expression, of course, since we have the exact one in Spanish, but I was curious about how easy to understand the French words might be to native English speakers.)

    To illustrate, one characters named Cynthia who has just come back from studying in France, says 'And I wish you wouldn't always take me "at the foot of the letter", as an English girl at school used to translate it.'

    From the above posts I gather very few people, if any, use it today. But it must have been better known back then, at least to a certain part of the population (middle- and upper-class with a certain level of education?) as the author doesn't bother to explain it.

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I think it is safe to say the expression, in French in English, is rarely used in English, and very rarely nowadays. As we know, there are many French expressions used in English (e.g.: au contraire, au fait, etc.). This is not one of them. As for using the literal English translation (at the foot of the letter), it makes no sense in English and could only be intended in a humorous way, I believe -- as a private joke for someone educated and/or who knows French.