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Difficulties in French

False friends (faux amis)

English belongs to the Germanic family of Indo-European languages, as can readily be seen from everyday words such as make, can, go, man, wife, son, daughter, sister, brother, house, garden, door—to name but a handful. French, on the other hand belongs to the Romance family which has its roots in the vulgar Latin of the Roman conquest of Europe and the Middle East. Nonetheless, the influence of French on the English language has been considerable and goes back to the year 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England, starting off what is now called the Norman Conquest. Within a very short time, virtually all the land in England was owned by Normans. The result was that Norman French entirely replaced English as the language of the ruling classes and so the situation was to remain for the next 300 years, French being the language of the English parliament until 1363.

After the English defeat at the hands of the French in the Hundred Years War, the English language underwent a major revival based on patriotism coupled with francophobia. Nevertheless, the influence of French continued through the cultural and intellectual cross-fertilization of the Renaissance and then later due to the fact that French was the official language of international diplomacy from 1714 until the First World War.

So it is that the English of the present day is rich in words that have come into the language from French and have changed little in spelling or meaning: intelligence, instinct, situation, absent, accident are identical in both languages, whilst others such as diplomacy (diplomatie), adventure (aventure), address (adresse) have changed but little. These are vrais amis—true friends—also called true cognates. However, there are also a great many false cognates—faux amis—that often cause problems. These fall into three broad categories:

  • Words that have a common root but which have taken on quite different meanings over the centuries (Fr. actuel, Eng. actual): these are true faux amis.
  • Words that have no common root and which look alike through pure accident, such as the French pain, which of course is entirely unrelated to its English look-alike: also true faux amis.
  • Words that have a common root and one or more meanings in common but whose meanings also diverge: (porc, in French meaning the animal itself, its meat and its skin): partial faux amis.

These slippery friendships can be dangerous: we no doubt all know the stories about the woman who declared she never bought food containing préservatifs (a préservatif is a condom) or the English au pair who attracted an unexpected amount of attention by declining dessert after a lengthy meal with the words je suis pleine (literally I’m full), which in French means I am pregnant; plein in this sense is only used of animals.

Below is a list of the most common true faux amis with their English translation, followed by the French equivalent of the English. In many cases, there is more than one translation possibility, so for more information, check the relevant entry in the dictionary.

Faux amis

French faux ami English translation English look-alike French translation of look-alike
actuel current, present actual réel, exact
actuellement currently, at the moment actually en fait
agenda diary agenda ordre du jour (de réunion)
allure pace, speed; appearance; style allure attrait, charme
assister à to be present at, attend assist aider
attendre to wait (for) attend assister à
avertissement warning advertisement publicité
balance scales (for weighing) balance équilibre
blesser to wound bless bénir
bribes fragments bribes pots-de-vin
car coach car voiture
cave cellar cave grotte
chair flesh chair chaise, fauteuil, siège
chance luck chance hasard
coin corner coin pièce (de monnaie)
déception disappointment deception tromperie, duperie
demander to ask for demand exiger
éventuellement possibly, if necessary eventually finalement
fabrique factory fabric tissu
formidable great, terrific, fantastic formidable redoutable; impressionnant
génial brilliant genial cordial
gentil kind, nice, likeable gentle doux
injures (verbal) abuse injuries blessures
journée day journey voyage
lecture reading (matter) lecture cours magistral
librairie bookshop library bibliothèque
monnaie change (coins) money argent
nouvelle piece of news; short story novel roman
patron boss patron client
préservatif condom preservative conservateur
procès trial process processus
prune plum prune pruneau
prétendre to claim pretend faire semblant
quitter to leave quit arrêter, cesser
raisin grape raisin raisin sec
rester to stay rest se reposer
sensible sensitive sensible sensible = raisonnable
stage (training) course stage stade; (Theat) scène
sympathique nice, pleasant sympathetic compatissant, compréhensif
tissu fabric, material tissue mouchoir en papier
veste jacket, coat US vest maillot de corps

Partial faux amis

The table below shows some French words which do mean the same as their English cognates, but which have other meanings as well.

French Additional meaning(s) in French
chauffeur driver of any vehicle
chef boss; head (person in charge)
circulation traffic
complet full (car park etc.); suit (clothing)
dramatique tragic
herbe grass
ignorer not to know, be unaware of
important large, considerable: une somme importante, un nombre important
manifester demonstrate, march (in protest)
massif/-ive solid (pin massif = solid pine)
méthode course book; (music) tutor (book)
occasion opportunity; second-hand purchase
parfum flavour (of ice cream, yoghurt etc.)
parent relative
pension boarding house, room and board
personne nobody
pile battery
porc pig, pigskin
possibilité opportunity
radar speed trap
radio X-ray
souvenir memory

Franglais in France

English may have imported a great deal of French over the centuries, but in recent times the direction of trade has been radically reversed. The last twenty years or so have seen a massive invasion of French by English vocabulary and expressions. This has much to do with popular culture, particularly music and cinema, and of course computer technology and the internet. At almost every level of discourse it is seen as trendy to drop in English words and expressions. The Académie Française, the illustrious body that acts as watchdog over the French language, has attempted stem the flow, to legislate against the use of anglicismes in the media, to invent ‘French’ terms for English imports—but to little or no avail. Quite a few terms coined by the Academie are now established in current French: ordinateur (computer), logiciel (software package), and baladeur (Walkman), for instance, but for every one that has been adopted, many more have not. It might be thought that this situation could only be beneficial for the English-speaker in France but in reality many supposedly English words and expressions have taken on a French life of their own that may leave English-speaking visitors baffled. Below are a few faux amis in franglais with their meanings as currently used in France.

Franglais Used in French to mean:
baby-foot table football
basket trainer (sports shoe); basketball
brushing blow-dry
camping campsite, campground (US)
dressing walk-in wardrobe (US closet)
catch wrestling
flipper pinball machine
footing jogging
forcing pressure
jogging tracksuit (though can mean ‘jogging’ as well)
lifting face-lift
living living room
mailing mail shot
people celebrities (even un people, a celebrity)
planning schedule
pressing dry-cleaner's
relooking make-over
se faire relooker to have a make-over
shampooing shampoo
smoking dinner jacket, tuxedo US
speaker/speakerine announcer
sweat sweatshirt
(pronounced ‘sweet’)
warning hazard lights

French influence on contemporary English

As stated above, the influence of French on English is deep-rooted. No less than 7971 entries in the Concise Oxford Dictionary include French in their etymologies. Many are so well established that we are scarcely aware of their origin: apartment, hotel, amateur, parliament, secateurs. Many others reflect France's preeminence in gastronomic matters: café, restaurant, maître d’hôtel, cordon bleu, casserole. Other terms have to do with attitudes to life and living, and the way we do things: joie de vivre, bon viveur, gourmand, sangfroid, savoir-faire, après-ski, etc. In many ways these reflect the respect we have for French culture, food and way of life, even if this is unconscious.

English is also very fond of the French-sounding suffix -ette in real borrowings from French, such as brunette, maisonette, cigarette, as well as in home-grown words like kitchenette, leatherette, luncheonette, bachelorette, ladette, laundrette, novelette, etc. In the home-grown cases the sense the suffix conveys ranges from smallness, to a female version of a male phenomenon, to the derogatory. Native speakers of English should also be aware that some well-known French expressions used in English, e.g. chacun à son goût, double entendre, crème de la crème, are not necessarily common in French. Others are common in English and are also current in French such as déjà vu or je ne sais quoi.

Some other French expressions used in English which are not used in France are: succès de scandale, fin de siècle, faux pas, aide-de-camp, encore (at the end of a successful performance French prefers bis).

And finally, a few more examples of the many French words and expressions used in both languages: éminence grise, raison d’être, bon mot, coup (d’état), entre nous, genre, œuvre, nouveau riche, femme fatale, ménage à trois, pied-à-terre, aide-mémoire, rendez-vous, amour, amour fou, amour propre, cause célèbre, bête noire.

Oxford University Press