Faux Pas Meaning & How to Use It

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English borrows a lot of terms from other languages, just as other languages borrow many terms from English. For example, French uses the word “sandwich” all the time (with a slightly different pronunciation), even though the word originated in England in the 18th century. Alternatively, English uses the term faux pas, even though it is French in origin.

So, what does the term mean? How can you use it in a sentence? And finally, does it have any synonyms in English? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s define the term:

 

Faux Pas Meaning & Origin

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As previously mentioned, faux pas is a French word that people frequently use in English. In French, faux means “false,” while pas means “dance step.” The word has been around for hundreds of years (if not longer) and has been in use in English since the 17th century. However, this still leaves us without a precise definition. So, what is a faux pas? Does it just mean a “false dance step?”

In short, no. This meaning is mostly metaphorical. The term can actually be applied in a wide range of social situations, not just dancing! So, here’s what the term really means:

An embarrassing or thoughtless action or statement made in a social setting.

In other words, a faux pas is like a slight, but noticeable social mistake. Now that you know what the phrase really means, the original French definitions start to make sense. Hundreds of years ago, kings and queens would often hold social gatherings in which dancing was involved. If someone made a mistake while dancing, people would likely notice and the person would be very embarrassed about it. Thus, they committed a faux pas.

Faux On Its Own

It’s also important to note that faux is used on its own in English as a replacement for “fake.” For example, if you buy a faux fur coat, it means that the coat is not made with real animal fur. Similarly, you might accidentally buy a faux diamond ring instead of a real one! However, once you add “pas” to it, the meaning changes drastically.

How to Pronounce Faux Pas

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Since the term is French in origin, its spelling and pronunciation differ from most English words. Based on the spelling, you might think that it sounds like “fox pass,” but that is not the case. Instead, the “au” in faux makes an “oh” sound and the “x” is silent. In pas, the “a” sounds like “au” in the word “caught,” while the “s” silent. Therefore, the term is pronounced like “foh-pah.”

Fortunately, the term is spelled the same in both the singular and plural form. However, the pronunciation is different when you’re talking about more than one. In the plural form, you add a “z” sound on the end of the phrase, so that it sounds like “foh-pahz.”

Examples of Social Mistakes

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Before we look at how to use faux pas in English, let’s look at some real-life examples. As you can imagine, people might have different opinions about what counts as a faux pas and what doesn’t. There are also different kinds of social blunders around the world, which can differ by region, culture, religion, or language. In any case, let’s look at a few common examples that are (more or less) universal:

  • Invasive questionsAsking questions about someone’s income, sex life, or any other topic that might be too personal or indiscrete could fall into this category.
  • Bad manners – If you’re at a formal dinner party and you start talking over people, eating with your hands, or playing with your silverware, you might be guilty of a faux pas!
  • Mild insults – Insults are generally considered faux pas if they are made in a public way and are believed to be unwarranted. For example, if someone invites you to their home and you criticize their decorating skills, you’ve likely committed a faux pas.
  • Overindulging – Eating or drinking too much alcohol in a public setting would likely be seen as a faux pas.
  • Rude or obscene gestures – Making rude or obscene gestures with your hands, arms, face, or any part of your body would be considered a faux pas.

Minor mistakes – In English, it is common to designate what kind of faux pas someone has made. For example, you can make a fashion faux pas by wearing the wrong attire for a certain occasion, while you can make a food faux pas by eating pizza with a fork and knife!

 

Illustration of a group of people eating and one person stuffing their face in the plate, representing a faux pa or social mistake

As you can see, a faux pas is not always serious and can be highly subjective. What one person considers to be rude or ill-mannered might be a totally acceptable action for someone else. This brings us to the concept of cultural mistakes and faux pas.

Cultural Mistakes

The examples listed above do not cover all the different kinds of faux pas. As previously stated, these can change based on where you live. For example, eating with your hands may be customary in some countries, but rude in others. So, let’s look at a few interesting cultural gaffes from around the world:

Greetings

While the handshake is common in most business settings throughout the world, social greetings can differ greatly by country. For example, in most European and some South American countries, it is normal to kiss someone on the cheek when you greet them. However, if you do this in Asia, the Middle East, and most parts of the United States, it would be considered a faux pas. Alternatively, bowing is considered a sign of respect in Japan and some other Asian countries, but in most other countries it would seem completely out of place!

Gestures

Sometimes, the same gesture can mean something totally different based on your location. In the United States and many western countries, the “thumbs-up” gesture can mean “OK” or “good job.” However, in countries like Iraq, Iran, or Russia, it is considered a rude gesture!

Reverence

Showing reverence (deep respect) for different things is very important in many countries. For example, in the United States, people are expected to respect the national flag by not allowing it to touch the ground. In China and Japan, you’re expected to take your shoes off before entering a sacred place (like a temple) or someone’s home. In Thailand, touching someone’s head is a huge sign of disrespect and a major faux pas!

These are just a few social mistakes from different countries, but in reality, there are thousands of cultural slip-ups out there. So, the next time you travel, make sure to research what you should and shouldn’t do at your destination!

How to Use Faux Pas in a Sentence

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Now that you know what it means and how to say it, it’s time to figure out how to use faux pas in a sentence! As a noun phrase, the term is pretty easy to use. You just have to put it in the right context. Here are a few examples:

  • He made a major faux pas when he visited Singapore and spit his gum out on the sidewalk!
  • That dress is the worst fashion faux pas I’ve ever seen.
  • I don’t think that ordering your steak well-done is a faux pas.
  • I’m afraid that I’ll make an embarrassing faux pas at the party.
  • To me, heckling a comedian is a huge faux pas.

Often times, the phrase is simply used as a way to categorize an action. For example, you might say “ignoring your friend at a party is a big social faux pas” or “many people think drinking too much is a faux pas, but I disagree.” No matter how you choose to use the term, it always refers to the same kind of action (i.e. a social mistake). 

Synonyms

If you’re looking for different ways to say faux pas in English, you have a few options:

  • Gaffe
  • Blunder
  • Indiscretion
  • Mistake
  • Slip-up
  • Impropriety
  • Blooper (less common)

While these terms all have similar meanings, faux pas is slightly more specific to mistakes made in social situations. In any case, these are all good replacements for the term if you want to mix things up!

Conclusion

Faux pas is one of many borrowed terms in English. For English speakers, the spelling and pronunciation may be a little odd, but it is a very common and useful term to know nonetheless. Now that you know what it means and how to use it, maybe you can avoid making any faux pas in the future!

We hope you found this guide on how to use faux pas in English useful! As always, for all things English conversation, grammar, or job-related, visit Magoosh Speaking today!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer and former English teacher. He enjoys traveling the world, watching movies, and caring for his three toy poodles.
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