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.
|French faux ami
||French translation of look-alike
||currently, at the moment
||ordre du jour (de réunion)
||pace, speed; appearance; style
||to be present at, attend
||to wait (for)
||scales (for weighing)
||chaise, fauteuil, siège
||pièce (de monnaie)
||to ask for
||possibly, if necessary
||great, terrific, fantastic
||kind, nice, likeable
||piece of news; short story
||sensible = raisonnable
||stade; (Theat) scène
||mouchoir en papier
||jacket, coat US
||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
||Additional meaning(s) in French
||driver of any vehicle
||boss; head (person in charge)
||full (car park etc.); suit (clothing)
||not to know, be unaware of
||large, considerable: une somme importante, un nombre important
||demonstrate, march (in protest)
||solid (pin massif = solid pine)
||course book; (music) tutor (book)
||opportunity; second-hand purchase
||flavour (of ice cream, yoghurt etc.)
||boarding house, room and board
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.
||Used in French to mean:
||trainer (sports shoe); basketball
||campsite, campground (US)
||walk-in wardrobe (US closet)
||tracksuit (though can mean ‘jogging’ as well)
||celebrities (even un people, a celebrity)
|se faire relooker
||to have a make-over
||dinner jacket, tuxedo US
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.