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je ne sais quoi

[ zhuhnuh se -kwa ]
/ ʒənə sɛ ˈkwa /
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noun French.

an indefinable, elusive quality, especially a pleasing one: She has a certain je ne sais quoi that charms everybody.

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Origin of je ne sais quoi

Literally, “I don't know what”
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

VOCAB BUILDER

What does je ne sais quoi mean?

Je ne sais quoi literally means “I don’t know what” in French.

The phrase was borrowed into English as an expression of a quality that makes something or someone attractive, distinctive, or special in some way, but is hard to put into words.

Where does je ne sais quoi come from?

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.

Often appearing in the construction (having) a certain je ne sais quoi, the saying is similar to the English expression a certain something, although the original French has a kind of je ne sais quoi all its own, don’t you think?

Je ne sais quoi continued on in English through the centuries, used widely in speech and writing as a learned expression that can lend a text or utterance a sophistication.

While it has its fanciness, je ne sais quoi isn’t exclusively highbrow. Icelandic pop singer Hera Björk wrote and performed the well-liked (though not winning) “Je Ne Sais Quoi” for the 2010 Eurovision European song contest. In 2012, the popular English duo Pet Shop Boys released “A Certain ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’,” a B-side to their hit track “Winner.”

How is je ne sais quoi used in real life?

Je ne sais quoi can be used to express the inexpressible in a way that can variously sound smart, worldly, or French-y. The “special sauce” that je ne sais quoi conveys is almost always positive or desirable in some way.

More examples of je ne sais quoi:

“I got a certain “je ne sais quoi” about me. Vibes be off the richter. I definitely been attracting a certain type lately & im lovin’ it 🤷🏾‍♀️”
—@ChoklateWasted_, December 2018

“I think that the French je ne sais quoi is more about the attitude. But more tangibly it’s about the details, whether that’s beautiful jewellery [sic], beautiful basics or just beautiful materials.”
—Adenorah (blogger) quoted by Elinor Block, Who What Wear, November 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for je ne sais quoi

je ne sais quoi
/ French (ʒənsekwa) /

noun

an indefinable quality, esp of personality
literally: I don't know what
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for je ne sais quoi

je ne sais quoi
[ (zhuh nuh say kwah) ]

That little something; a quality that eludes description: “The Mona Lisa's smile has a certain je ne sais quoi.” From French, meaning “I don't know what.”

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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