Enfant terrible

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Enfant terrible is an English idiom that has come to English from the French. We will examine the definition of the expression enfant terrible, its origin and some examples of its use in a sentence or two.

An enfant terrible is someone who behaves unconventionally, someone who challenges the norm. In general, the term is applied to someone who has challenged the status quo in an avant-garde or shocking way, but also displays genius. Synonyms of the phrase enfant terrible that may be found in a thesaurus are spoiled brat, nonconformist, holy terror. Someone who is considered an enfant terrible is usually associated with the arts in some way. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen, artists Tracy Emin and Banksy, composer and musician Sergei Prokofiev, and film directors Lars Von Trier and Orson Welles have all been referred to as enfants terribles. Jean Cocteau wrote a novel entitles Les Enfants Terribles in 1929, about two doomed siblings. The novel was made into a film directed by  Jean-Pierre Melville in 1950, and an opera composed by Philip Glass. Enfant terrible is one of the French expressions that made its way into the English language in the mid-1800s. The term is always rendered with its article in French, l’enfant terrible. Originally, the term referred to a literal terrible infant, or brat, especially one who would blurt out outrageous things to adults, causing embarrassment. By the 1930s the term enfant terrible, without the article l’, was used in English to mean anyone who was outrageous or did outrageous things. Today, the term describes someone who shocks others, but often with a hint of genius. Enfant terrible is a loan phrase, which is a term that has been taken from another language and used as an English phrase. Another term for a loan phrase is a borrowed phrase. The English term enfant terrible follows a pronunciation somewhere between English and French. The plural form is enfants terribles, following the French convention of pluralization.


Orson Welles, aging enfant terrible and pariah, begins shooting a film about this new cultural battlefield. (The Riverfront Times)

The EPP has long been struggling to deal with Orban, once dubbed the “enfant terrible” of the party by EPP president Joseph Daul. (The EU Observer)

Still, with all of these great parts coming for him—there all sorts of percolating projects, including something he’s very excited about but can’t yet announce and a film he’s writing, directing, starring in, and co-producing with cinema’s enfant terrible Xavier Dolan—Fern is still focusing on his writing and directing endeavors because he says he’d hate to be in a superhero movie or on a crime procedural. (W Magazine)

In March 2016 the ex-enfants terribles of rock performed in Paris, twelve years after their infamous break up due to internal conflict around lead-singer Pete Doherty’s substance abuse. (The Times of Malta)