In English, milieu refers to a social environment, or sometimes more generally to any environment or location. It’s often used to refer to social environments that are remote to the speaker and her presumed readers. The social worlds of artists and the wealthy, for instance, are often referred to as milieus, as are social worlds of bygone eras. But the word doesn’t necessarily bear these connotations, and it’s sometimes used in reference to more ordinary, accessible environments.
Milieu came to English from French in the 19th century. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology traces the word’s use in English to J.A. Symond’s 1877 book Renaissance in Italy, but the OED finds one in an 1854 letter written by George Eliot. Google Books uncovers a few instances from earlier, but most are in the phrase juste milieu, an art term (referring to a middle way between opposing movements) in which milieu has a different sense.
The French plural of milieu is milieux. In English, both milieux and milieus are used, though milieux is more common in British English while milieus is more common in American English.
Mrs. Whittemore joked that the sweaty business of wallpapering removed her from the more rarefied literary milieu. [Washington Post]
In my milieu, a hooded sweatshirt was as much a part of a white-boy uniform as blue jeans or an Allman Brothers T-shirt. [Financial Times]
The company has work-readiness teams to provide support for young men and women recruited from a milieu of disadvantage. [Sydney Morning Herald]
Adrienne Rich, the American poet, reminds us of the importance of creating a milieu in which different voices and experiences must find expression. [Independent Online]
For whatever reasons, the seedier milieus of Boston have of late become favorite haunts for popular crime novelists and filmmakers. [New York Times]
Certain aspects of its privileged but constrictive milieux, she says, reminded her of her own upbringing in north-west London’s Jewish community. [Guardian Observer]