The term is a French phrase in common usage in English. In French, cause means, here, a legal case, and célèbre means "famous". The phrase originated with the 37-volume Nouvelles Causes Célèbres, published in 1763, which was a collection of reports of well-known French court decisions from the 17th and 18th centuries. While English speakers had used the phrase for many years, it came into much more common usage after the 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for espionage, which attracted worldwide interest. Often, politicians and social gadflies will become involved to use the media attention surrounding the case to promote their own agendas.
It has been noted that the public attention given to a particular case or event can obscure the facts rather than clarify them. As one observer states, "The true story of many a cause célèbre is never made manifest in the evidence given or in the advocates' orations, but might be recovered from these old papers when the dust of ages has rendered them immune from scandal".