Faut pas confondre

1734420_naturismeThe French language is filled with pitfalls for the non-native speaker. I have personally fallen into so many of them I have permanent bruises on my tongue.

Okay, I exaggerate. But I have become rather good at rolling with the punches when I make a faux pas.

The wonderful thing about an acquired language is that you are allowed to make mistakes. Of course everyone can make mistakes, but it feels like we get a special pardon for bloopers and blunders in French.

One of the my frequent funnies is confusing words that look similar but have very different meanings.

  1. Culot / culotte
    ‘Avoir du culot’ or ‘être culotté’ means to have a lot of nerve. A culotte, on the other hand, describes a type of ladies’ undergarment. ‘Perdre sa culotte’ means to lose one’s shirt, for example in a game of poker. But to go ‘sans culotte’ may require a certain culot.
  2. Naturiste / naturaliste
    You need a lot of culot to go to the plage naturiste (nudist beach). Unless you happen to stumble upon it in the way of a naturalist simply studying the fascinating wildlife. According to the French Naturist Federation, this country is the world’s leading destination for nudists.
  3. Gâteaux / gâteux
    I love cake so this first word is a piece of it. For many years I was confused by the expression ‘Mamie gateaux’, which affectionately describes an over-indulgent grandmother, thinking it had something to do with the verb ‘gâter’ which means to spoil. A word of advice: don’t tell your mother-in-law she is gâteux – senile, doddering or incontinent.
  4. Jambe / jambon
    My jambes (legs) may not be long and slender but they are not quite jambons (hams). Yet.
  5. Cochonnerie / connerie
    Speaking of ham, why do we blame the poor pig for everything? A mere syllable separates the familiar expression for junk food (cochonnerie) from that which describes an act of stupidity (connerie). Do not use either expression when attempting to describe your child’s diet to a pediatrician.
  6. Piéton / pigeon
    French drivers may not always distinguish between them, but pedestrians (piétons) are not pigeons. There are plenty of both on the streets of Paris so when in France it is best to watch where you put your pieds!
  7. Baisser / baiser
    You may well lower (baisser) your eyes. A single ‘s’ is all that separates the act of lowering with a much lower act. Although ‘baiser’ has a place in the dictionary to officially mean kiss (baiser la main), in actual fact it is only ever used to mean to screw or get screwed.

We all know someone who says ‘prostrate’ instead of ‘prostate’. Do you ever mix up your meanings in English or any other language?


  1. davidprosser · March 10, 2016

    I find I make less mistakes with my own language, never mind French, if I just nod sagely but don’t open my mouth.Of course some will consider me wise and some gateux.
    By the way, I’m confused. I always thought cullotes were a kind of ladies onsie worn over the undergarments? I’m sure I bought my sister one in the seventies, full of colour to blind onlookers.
    xxx Massive Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Oh, dear, David, I fear you may have got that wrong….or perhaps it is a Welsh usage? To my knowledge, culottes only ever describe a garment for the lower half of the body – possibly closest to the traditional ‘bloomers’ in English. When I was growing up this was the word for the split skirts that were like short pants ending just around the knee…For the French these days the term refers loosely to underpants. I wish I had a picture of your sister in her colourful version from the 70s! xo

  2. Piddlewick · March 10, 2016

    My faux pas the other day was prounouncing the ‘t’ on chiot ~ we are on the lookoput for a puppy. I was told, by my lovely elderly neighbours, that this was a bad word (but of course not what it was). I have a terrible habit of prouncing the last letter when I shouldn’t which has led me into unnumberable faux pas moments.:-)

    • coteetcampagne · March 10, 2016

      That’s a problem- Down here in deepest Aude, one DOES pronounce the last consonant in most words. Give me Northern French any day, the local accent is a minefield

      • MELewis · March 10, 2016

        Ha, ha…In our parts, it’s the z’s that get you – they’re most often silent but occasionally pronounced according to some unwritten rule. Like so much of life in this great land! 😉

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Hilarious, I love it! Wish I’d thought of that one – it makes perfect sense for someone learning the language to think of a female version of chiot – chiotte!

  3. Pleats and Keats · March 10, 2016

    Love these. Trop top.

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Merci! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  4. poshbirdy · March 10, 2016

    Fantastic post. Have made and will continue to make loads of errors. More than that, I have a habit of using language which is way too familiar and raises a brow. I found myself pointing out ‘un mec’ on a train recently while chatting to a very pleasant elderly lady I had never met before, and she very kindly chose to ignore it but I am sure it was inappropriate on a first meeting!

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Un mec, ha ha I know the feeling! How many times have I used inappropriately familiar slang with either family friends or business acquaintances. You can almost feel the ice forming…even if it often melts with forgiveness for your ‘foreign-ness’.

  5. Suzanne et Pierre · March 10, 2016

    Another great installment in your series on language. You have picked some very good examples and right now I can’t think of any of this type of mistakes I make in English but I am certain there are tons…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Cheers, Suzanne! I think we must all do funny things with language, perhaps even worse are the ones we’re not aware of? 😉

  6. George Lewis · March 10, 2016

    Rember Stephan’s hilarious and accurate “sleeping on his bay leaves ” for resting on his laurels

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      How could I forget? It was a perfectly good translation…but one of these days I’ll do a post specifically on his bloopers! (“I take a leek!”)

  7. Eugenie Street · March 10, 2016

    This is a great article! I have come here by chance thru WordPress but will bookmark and come back to read more.
    Ok, I can think of one reverse case, with English: I’m French, and it seems the way I pronounce “focus” often gets appalled stares…

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Merci, and glad to have you on board! Your example reminds me of a story my husband tells about being at a zoo in the U.S. as a child and crying out: “Look at the phoques!” 😉

  8. Mél@nie · March 10, 2016

    merci, chère amie… you’ve made my afternoon… 🙂 most “faux pas” occur with people whose mother tongue is not from the same “linguistic family”… I’ve been lucky with French, as Romanian is also a Latin language: same vocabulary, grammar, syntax, expressions, proverbs, etc… 🙂

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Mélanie dear, I am not surprised! I have a dear Romanian friend who is just as well versed in French as in English. You must have something in your veins! Merci mille fois! 🙂

      • Mél@nie · March 18, 2016

        🙂 avec joie et avec plaisir, encore et tjs – chère Mel… ❤

  9. Osyth · March 10, 2016

    Of course I make bloopers aplenty in France …. for example asking a friend if they were familiar with the story of the tortoise and the baking powder (levure) rather than the hare (lievre) and the moment I asked to see the squirrels (écureuils) advertised as a feature of a house we were viewing … instead of stables (écuries) but being in the US is posing me a few problems in my own tongue as it happens – ‘Rest Room’?!!? 😀

    • MELewis · March 10, 2016

      Cannot for the life of me imagine you state-side. Of course, as a Canadian who also lived for several years in the US (Minneapolis), I am familiar with euphemisms like ‘rest room’. But really, is it any crazier than ‘water closet’? 😉

      • Osyth · March 10, 2016

        In my defence, I as an English girl have never EVER said ‘water closet’ – now loo …. definitely loo which when I stop and think about it is highly ridiculous! I can’t imagine me here either and it’s been nearly three months.

  10. ourfrenchoasis · March 11, 2016

    Hi, I just found you via wordpress too! having lived in France for years I, like you, have bruises on my tongue from language mishaps, but perhaps it is a good thing, we learn to laugh at ourselves and that is one thing we should all be able to do, laugh at our own silly mistakes. Laugh and I find the French laugh with us, all you need is a good sense of humour! Have a lovely weekend 🙂

    • MELewis · March 11, 2016

      So very true! It’s hard to take yourself overly seriously when your ego is bruised. Those moments of hubris have been very good life lessons – and you’re right – the French sense of humor is there, you just have to find it! 😉 Thanks for following and looking forward to reading you!

      • ourfrenchoasis · March 11, 2016

        It’s a great leveler living in France, or any foreign country for that matter, one minute you can be on an almighty high, feeling you have totally conquered the language and moved into the space known as bi-lingual and the next, you’re back down in the beginners section again!!!

  11. wanderingcows · March 13, 2016

    I love the bit about calling your mother-in-law a gateux which could mean that she is incontinent. Ha !

    • MELewis · March 14, 2016

      Yes, in all my innocence I still think that one hurt! Oops… 😉

  12. Kat · March 14, 2016

    Oh I still get prostrate and prostate wrong!

    • MELewis · March 14, 2016

      You’re not alone – but as long as you know the difference in meaning! ;-P

      • Kat · March 21, 2016

        Hahah, yes I do 😉

  13. midihideaways · March 14, 2016

    Love it!!

    • MELewis · March 14, 2016

      Guess we’re all in the same boat!

  14. LaVagabonde · March 30, 2016

    Hahaha. I know these well, but here’s another pair: balai/baleine. At the beginning of my self-education in French, one of my French friends told me that the French have “un balai dans le cul” (a broomstick up the butt). A short time later, I was at a cocktail party. A small group of Frenchies were criticizing the French, so I decided to show off my French prowess and say…”Les francais ont une baleine dans le cul.” (The french have a whale up the butt) You can just imagine the silence….

    • MELewis · March 31, 2016

      Excellent! Sometimes I think the French definitely have a whale up their ass 😉

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