Why Don’t We Have an English Word for Deja Vu?

Deja vu is an overused word these days. It is a French word meaning “already seen.” However, we began using it in English to describe a feeling that something we are experiencing has happened before.

This weird and eerie feeling is the subject of much speculation, including propositions of time travel or multi-dimensional experiences, but it is most likely a psychological phenomenon that involves a blip in memory processing.

When we say deja vu, we mean a feeling of deja vu. When used in this way, deja vu describes an illusory experience, but it has since been generalized to refer to anything that is familiar and perhaps, mundane.

A frequent question native English speakers ask is, why, after all this time, don’t we have our own English word for deja vu? Why do we use a French word?

English Word for Déjà vu

Well, the answer is that we actually do have an English word for deja vu. It’s deja vu.

This question uncovers a central misunderstanding about certain English words. This is the notion that certain words that sound foreign are still foreign words.

Déjà vu is a borrowed foreign word in English. It has been incorporated into the language and is used as if it is an English word. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, it is an English word.

There are many such borrowed words, or loanwords, in English that we do NOT question.

These words make up a huge part of the English language and we, in fact, use them in everyday conversation without ever noticing.

There Are Many Loanwords in English

And, of course, many other words in the English language were formed from loanwords. Thousands of everyday words do not stretch all the way back to the Germanic roots of our language.

bungalow has a Hindi origin

caravan has a Persian origin

tomato has a Spanish origin

Do you think of cafe as an English word? You may recognize its origin as being French, but you probably do not question its status as an English word, either.

But there are other words for cafe.

Why Is Deja Vu Still Though of as a Foreign French Word?

Deja vu, when used in its illusory and eerie sense, is a singluar experience and there are no other single words we can used to describe it without explaining it in full sentences. This certainly may have something do with how we continue to think of it as a French word.

However, there is more to it than that.

It remains French sounding to our ears. Many other loanwords use a pronunciation that makes them sound more English to our ears.

As well, in written works, it tends to be rendered with its accent marks and even italicized, so as to set it apart as a foreign word.

Keep in mind that using accent marks does not disqualify a word as a loanword, and you will find it spelled without such marks often. As you can see, I’ve used both versions in this article, with and without accent marks.

All of this probably contributes to the perception of deja vu as a French word that we use because we don’t have an English word.

There are other such words from French we use routinely: faux pas, joie de vivre, avant-garde, carte blanche, etc.

The real reason we do not have another word for deja vu is that we already have one!

Of course, we have loanwords from many languages, including commonly from Spanish, Italian, and even Japanese and Chinese.

And even though English is a Germanic language, we have loanwords from German.

Many common foods are loanwords. Spaghetti is an English word as well as an Italian word. We pronounce it in an Anglicized way. Most of the time when we say spaghetti we do not think of ourselves as using an Italian word.

Deja vu, however, is a cliche at this point.

Did you notice something?

Cliché is a loanword too but nobody ever asks why we don’t have an English word for it. In fact, we do, but it is not used nearly as often as cliche: hackneyed. Yes, many loanwords are used more often than corresponding English words.

If you would like to learn much more about borrowed words in English, I recommend Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English by Phillip P. Durkin.

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