Foreigners, strangers, aliens and Dr Spock

The words foreigner, stranger and alien can be very confusing for French native speakers. Depending on your world view, the words can also invoke different meanings and reactions.

A foreigner is a person who comes from another country. In French, a foreigner is un/e étranger/e.

You might say:

No, he’s not Swiss. He’s a foreigner. I think he’s Egyptian.

It is difficult to work in Switzerland if you are a foreigner.

Bernard Kouchner was the Minister for Foreign Affairs in France.

Tina Turner recorded the song Foreign Affair about a romantic relationship with a Spanish matador.

The tone associated with the term foreigner is increasingly negative. We read about foreign invaders, foreign-backed dissidents, foreign terrorists and foreign fighters. There are growing movements across the world to close borders to foreigners.

There are degrees of being a foreigner. Is your French colleague sitting in the desk opposite really a foreigner? Or is she just French?

You can also say:

Doctors said the foreign object found in the childs stomach was a rusty nail (an object that has entered something by accident and should not be there).

Remember: Un/e étranger/e is a foreigner in English, NOT a stranger.


A stranger is someone that you do not know. In French a stranger is un/e inconnu/e.

You might say:

I sat down in the bus next to a stranger.

There was a complete stranger sitting at my desk.

They got on well together although they were total strangers.

We’ve told our daughter not to speak to strangers.

Franks Sinatra describes two strangers falling in love and lust in his song, Strangers in the Night.

Clint Eastwood developed a genre of westerns as the ‘tall dark stranger’ who rides into a small town and shots all the baddies.

The popular meaning of stranger has also become darker in recent years. Strangers today are viewed by many as a threat and a danger.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats said 100 years ago: There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.

Hospitality towards strangers was not only an obligation, but also a sacred part of many cultures in the ancient world: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares – Book of Hebrews 13:2

Expression (happy sarcasm): Well hello stranger! is an expression used when you see someone you are close to after a long absence, just like in this song by Barbara Lewis, first released in 1962.


Remember: Un/e inconnu/e is a stranger in English


Alien has two general meanings. It refers to a person who is not a citizen of the country in which they live or work (similar in meaning to a foreigner)  and is often used in legal and political circles.  In the USA the expression, illegal aliens, is widely used.

Singer Sting describes himself as a legal alien in New York in the song Englishman In New York.

You can say:

In 1795, the US Congress passed four laws, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

US border police arrested 25 illegal aliens.

You can also say.

For most Anglo-Saxons, kissing a woman (or man) three times on introduction is an alien (or foreign) concept.

Of course, the Hollywood alien is a creature from another world or planet, such as our friend ET or if you prefer, Sigourney Weaver’s nemesis in the Alien films. My favourite alien is Dr Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human of the science fiction series Star Trek.


Photo Unsplash: two aliens in car. 

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on the Bilan magazine website.





Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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