je ne sais quoi
[zhuh nuh se kwa]
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.
Examples of je ne sais quoi
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 phrased “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—or pretentiousness.
While it has its fanciness, je ne sais quoi isn’t all 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.”
In 2014, interest in je ne sais quoi spiked after it was the butt of a joke in a commercial by the fast-food restaurant Sonic. In it, two men are eating chicken wings when one says the chicken will be his wingman. The other scoffs at the idea that the chicken would give him a certain je ne sais quoi. The first man, ignorant of the expression and thinking it’s a girl named Jenna interested in him, responds “Jenna said what?”
Who uses je ne sais quoi?
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.
Watching art detectives on #FakeOrFortune. Intriguing program… it scratches a particular itch for me. Can't quite explain it! Je ne sais quoi, as it were. An artist's daughter can only take the subject of attribution a bit personally, it seems!!
— P M Robinson (@pmeganb) December 17, 2018
Sometimes its use is earnest, other times a parody of fancy talkers.
It doesn't rhyme, but it has a certain je ne sais quoi. https://t.co/4X9C3SbkKf
— Pam Terry (@OldSpringsGirl) December 29, 2018
Popscycle adding that certain Je ne sais quoi to weddings since 2014 pic.twitter.com/iUDZX7rVH8
— POPSCYCLE (@popscycle2014) December 28, 2018
This is not meant to be a formal definition of je ne sais quoi like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of je ne sais quoi that will help our users expand their word mastery.