Je Ne Sais Quoi: Meaning and Origin of the French Expressions  - French Iceberg (2023)

Whether you speak English or French, chances are you’ve heard the expression “je ne sais quoi” used in a variety of situations. Today, we explain all about the origins and meaning of “je ne sais quoi”, which happens to be one of the oldest French expressions still used today.

What does the expression “je ne sais quoi” mean?

Because of its long history, the expression “Je ne sais quoi” can have two radically opposed meanings depending on the way and the situation in which it is used.

The literal meaning of “je ne sais quoi”

If we take the expression word for word, “je ne sais quoi” is said when we want to mean that we don’t have the answer to something, or that we are not able to explain and/or describe it. In this sense, the expression can be translated as “I don’t know what” in English.


Il a perdu son portefeuille qui contenait sa carte bleue, ses papiers d’identité, de l’argent liquide et je ne sais quoi d’autres. => He lost his wallet which contained his credit card, his ID, some money and I don’t know what else.

Quelque chose s’est produit hier, même si je ne sais pas encore quoi. => Something happened yesterday, even though I don’t know what yet.

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Je cherchais je ne sais quoi lorsque le coup de feu retentit. => I don’t know what I was looking for when the shot rang out.

The symbolic meaning of “je ne sais quoi”

Through the export of French cultural works internationally, the expression has begun to have another meaning for the general public. According to the definition, “je ne sais quoi” is used to evoke a quality that is difficult to describe, often very positive. Used in this way, the expression becomes a classic noun phrase that can be used as a subject or as an object.


J’ai eu un coup de foudre pour cette fille. Elle a ce petit “je ne sais quoi” qui m’a fait chavirer. => It was love at first sight with this girl. She has that little “je ne sais quoi” which made me fall for her.

La Provence comprend de nombreux villages médiévaux qui possèdent tous une âme unique et un certain “je ne sais quoi”. => The Provence region has many medieval towns which all have a unique soul and a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

How to pronounce “je ne sais quoi” ?

The expression “je ne sais quoi” is pronounced differently in France than in the United States. The main difference in pronunciation is in the verb of the verbal group. While in French, “sais” is pronounced as “sé”, English speakers tend to make the last sound long, like a “hey”. If we rely on phonetic writing, “je ne sais quoi” is pronounced /ʒə n(ə) sɛ kwa/.

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Where does the expression “je ne sais quoi” come from?

Despite its recent international popularity over the last two centuries, the expression “je ne sais quoi” is actually several thousand-year-old. In fact, it has its roots in Latin and Old French. According to its etymology, “je ne sais quoi” comes from the Old French “ne sai quoi” which meant “something”.

This phrase is itself a translation of the Latin expression “inane nescio quia” first found in one of the 37 volumes of the encyclopedia L’Histoire Naturelle, published in 77 BC by Pliny the Elder (Roman writer, philosopher, historian, and naturalist). Like the French version, the Latin origins of “je ne sais quoi” gave rise to the Spanish (un “no sé qué”) and Italian (un “non so che”) versions of the expression, which are also used in the same way.

The French version of the expression began to be introduced into the English language in the 17th century when the author Thomas Blount chose to include the expression in his work Glossographia. In this work, which could be described as a dictionary, the British author compiles and explains the foreign terms and expressions found in the English language.

How is “je ne sais quoi” used in the world?

We notice that the French expression is used very differently in English and in French.

The use of the expression “je ne sais quoi” in English

In other countries, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, “je ne sais quoi” is always used as a noun phrase to designate something that is difficult to express and/or describe. The expression is then exclusively introduced by determiners like “a” (“un” in French), and by possessive adjectives like “his/her” (“son/sa” in French).


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She has a “je ne sais quoi” in her voice that makes her sound confident and glamour. => Elle a un “je ne sais quoi” dans la voix qui lui donne un ton confiant et glamour.

The more I think about it, the less I remember her little “je ne sais quoi”. => Au plus j’y pense, au moins je me souviens de son petit “je ne sais quoi”.

In the Anglo-Saxon culture, the expression is often associated with the French woman, and more specifically with the chic and glamorous actresses of the 60s like Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve. Thus, “je ne sais quoi” is very often used to state an almost mystical quality in a woman, whether physical or mental.

The use of the expression “je ne sais quoi” in France

A “je ne sais quoi” is also said in French, although the expression is rarely used in everyday language. You are more likely to hear it at a high-society dinner than at a family meal.

If we put aside its use as an expression, you will hear the verbal group “je ne sais quoi” used in all sorts of ways in the French language. In this case, an adverb is usually added before the “quoi” to finish marking the negation, like “plus” or “pas”, or to show the frequency and/or the temporality of the sentence with an adverb like “encore”.


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Je suis perdu dans la vie. Je ne sais plus quoi faire. => I’m lost in life. I don’t know what to do anymore.

Je viens juste de commencer mon nouveau travail. Je ne sais pas encore quoi faire. => I just started out at my new job. I don’t know what to do yet.

How do you write “je ne sais quoi”?

“I don’t know what” is composed of the first-person singular subject personal pronoun “je”, the negative adverb “ne”, the first person singular present tense verb “sais” and the relative pronoun “quoi”.

The wrong ways to write “je ne sais quoi”

Due to its high international popularity, you will often come across misspelled versions of the phrase “je ne sais quoi”. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Jenesequa
  • Je nai se quois
  • Je ne sais qua
  • Je ne sais quo
  • Je ne sais quos
  • Je ne say qua
  • Gene se qua

Thus, the expression “je ne sais quoi” would have become so popular abroad that it appears every year among the most searched French queries on Google by English speakers.

If you want to work on your pronunciation of the French expression while discovering new songs, we recommend the rap song by the artist from Marseille Deen Burbigo called “Un je ne sais quoi”, or the song “Je ne sais quoi” by the Icelandic group Héra Björk, who used the expression during their performance at the Eurovision 2010.


Now, you know the meaning of Je ne sais quoi! As always, if you want to expand your knowledge of the French language, don’t hesitate to read our other articles on the subject of the most famous French expressions such as “Oh là là!“, “Touché” or “C’est la vie“.

Translated into English by Sacha


Why do French people say je ne sais quoi? ›

The French phrase je ne sais quoi was borrowed into English as early as the 1650s to characterize some inexpressible, indefinable, or ineffable quality, such as some element that makes an engaging work of art or charismatic person special.

Where does the expression je ne sais quoi come from? ›

Borrowed from French je ne sais quoi (literally “I don't know what”).

What does the French phrase Je ne sais quoi most likely mean? ›

noun. zhə-nə-ˌsā-ˈkwä : something (such as an appealing quality) that cannot be adequately described or expressed. a young actress who has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Do French people say je ne sais quoi? ›

Je ne sais quoi literally translates into “I don't know what”. But French people tend to use it one of two situations, as follows: What is this?

Why do French people say quoi so much? ›

Using quoi at the end of a sentence is a colloquial French filler word. It doesn't translate well, but it's used to mean “I don't care. / In short / And that's all. / It's simple, let's not dive into it too much, it's as simple as that…”

What is a famous French saying? ›

Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup.

Literal translation: “Eat well, laugh often, love a lot.” Actual meaning: “Live life to the fullest” or carpe diem (“seize the day”). Use this positive French saying to console a friend that is having a hard time.

What's another word for je ne sais quoi? ›

What is another word for je ne sais quoi?
63 more rows

Do the French say Si for yes? ›

Si is one of the many ways to say 'yes', along with the ever reliable oui and its more casual cousins ouais and mouais, the latter being used when you have a hint of hesitancy about whatever you are agreeing to.

Do French people say je t adore? ›

The phrase “je t'adore” is a rarely used way to say “I love you” in the French language. You would rather use it when talking to a very close friend & family.

What does the French word je ne sais quoi mean? ›

/ˌʒə nə seɪ ˈkwɑː/ uk. /ˌʒə nə seɪ ˈkwɑː/ French for 'I don't know what': a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described: Although he's not conventionally attractive, he has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him popular with the ladies.

What is the hardest French word to say? ›


Brace yourself: The hardest French word to pronounce is the word for locksmith – “serrurerie“. It was the most commonly repeated response.

Is it rude to say quoi in French? ›

In English, if you didn't hear someone, simply saying “What?” would be considered informal or even rude, and the same goes for quoi.

Why do the French say sacre bleu? ›

It literally means “sacred blue,” but it comes from “sacré Dieu” or “sacred God.” “Bleu” was used by people to replace “Dieu” in order to avoid the blasphemy of explicitly using the name of God.

What is the easiest sentence to say in French? ›

Let's dig in!
  1. Bonjour. = Good morning. ...
  2. Bonne après-midi. = Good afternoon. ...
  3. Je m'appelle Mondly. = My name is Mondly. ...
  4. Je suis ravi de vous rencontrer. = I'm pleased to meet you. ...
  5. Comment ça va ? = How are you? ...
  6. Bien, merci. Et vous-même ? ...
  7. J'aimerais une bière. = I'd like a beer. ...
  8. Je suis désolé. = I'm sorry.

What are 3 greetings in French? ›

Hello in French
  • The slangy one: Coucou! Meaning: “Hi!” About: Coucou is a sweet, sincere way of saying hi, normally reserved for close friends and family. ...
  • The casual one: Salut! Meaning: “Hey!” ...
  • The formal one: Bonjour! Meaning: This failsafe greeting literally means “Good day”.

What does sais mean in English? ›

Sais (plural Sais or Saeson) (Wales, informal) Someone from England; Englander.

What is Je Suis? ›

As you probably know, je suis means 'I am'.

What is the difference between quoi and Quelle? ›

Whereas que/quoi/qui will be used to define something, to ask what they are, quel is used in the context of a choice, an alternative: what is that, relative to other elements? Note also that Quel is an adjective, so it always relates to a noun (thing/person).

What is Je ne sais quoi Oxford English Dictionary? ›

a good quality that is difficult to describe He has that je ne sais quoi that distinguishes a professional from an amateur.

Why do French say oui oui? ›

It's common in French to repeat the yes twice: “oui, oui…” Of course this cracks up our English friends, but it's common to double the yes to answer in a casual way in French. It doesn't have a specific meaning: it's just a way to speak and it's not like we say “oui, oui” all the time either.

What is mais oui in French? ›

2. Mais oui ! This expression means “yes” or “obviously.” It is a synonym of bien sûr !

Why do French people say bah oui? ›

Essentially, “bah” means “you idiot” or “yeah duh.” So if someone asks if you're going to watch the next season of Game of Thrones, you say, “Bah ouais, c'est la fin de la série.” If you didn't remember it's your coworker Daisy's birthday until she brings a cake out at lunch, you'd exclaim, “Bah oui, c'est ton ...

What is the most romantic thing to say in French? ›

Je t'aime passionnément – I love you passionately. Je t'aime à la folie – I love you like crazy. Je t'aime d'amour – I love you with true love.

How do you respond to Je t'aime? ›

It means "I love you too" and is commonly used to reply to someone who just said to you "I love you". Therefore, it can be used for everyone who says to you "I love you"! "Je t'aime aussi" means "I love you too".

What is Ma Belle? ›

Translation of "ma belle" in English. Noun. baby. honey. sweetheart.

Do the French say je ne sais pas? ›

In French, the meaning of “Je ne sais pas” (pronounced juh nun say pah) is “I don't know”. Slang variations of “Je ne sais pas” include “Je sais pas”, J'sais pas” and “Chais pas”.

Why do the French say Je T Aime? ›

You can be pretty sure that this “je t'aime” translates to a romantic “I love you.” However, if you are walking together with a friend and they say Je t'aime bien (something that can be literally translated as “I love you very much”), this can simply mean they like you.

What is the literal meaning of faux pas? ›

But in faux pas, it means false, and the whole phrase means “false step,” or “misstep.”

What is the strongest way to say I love you? ›

Either way, here are a few ways to say “I love you” to your bae to help you express your feelings.
  • I love you.
  • I love so much.
  • I love you a lot.
  • I love you too.
  • I love you forever.
  • I love you unconditionally.
  • I love you to the moon and back.
  • I love you with all my heart.
Mar 20, 2022

When a French man says I love you? ›

In France, “I love you” – or rather “Je t'aime” – almost always means one thing and that is “I'm in love with you.” You will very rarely hear “Je t'aime” outside of a couple/lovers paradigm.

What does the saying Carte Blanche mean? ›

Carte blanche is much like a blank check. In French, carte means "document" and blanche means "blank," so the phrase means "blank document." English retained that literal meaning: a carte blanche was a blank document signed in advance by one party and given to the other with permission to fill in conditions later.

Where did the word kaput come from? ›

Etymology. From German kaputt (“broken, out of order”), from French capot (“to be without a trick in the card game Piquet”).

What is the meaning of Fox Pass? ›

Meaning of faux pas in English

words or behaviour that are a social mistake or not polite: I made some remark about his wife's family, and then realized I'd made a serious faux pas. Synonyms. gaffe. slip.


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