Faux amis

Anyone who has ever tried to speak another language will have had an encounter with les faux amis – those foreign words that appear to be all friendly and dressed in familiar clothes but turn out to be perfect strangers.

False friends are easy traps to fall into when you begin learning French. They offer a tempting short-cut to new vocabulary, although they rarely mean what you think they do. Ancien is not ancient, monnaie is only one type of money, and you must realize that réaliser means to achieve something. Achever may just finish you off.

At first I felt cheated: it was simply not fair that all the French words I thought I knew by osmosis were virtually useless. Not only was it a waste, I had to learn them all over again. And how unsporting of the French to change the meanings of their own words! It was as if they did it on purpose to confuse us foreigners.

Once I got past this rather childish fit of pique (itself another example, the French word pique meaning not temper but a cutting remark), I was able to get on with the business of learning to speak French — the real language and not some ideal in my head.

My first clue that the faux amis could also be my friends came one day when, in a moment of weakness, I began to cry. They were tears of pure self pity. From not understanding. From being misunderstood. From feeling like a fish out of water.

“Poor sweetie, you are very sensible,” my Frenchman said.

“Sensible?” I sniffed. “What’s sensible about crying?”

“You shouldn’t get upset so easily.”

So I learned that sensible means sensitive. It didn’t seem very sensible to be so sensitive but there it was. It was reassuring somehow to know that the false friends could strike in both languages. And it gave me a strategy for figuring out new vocabulary.

There was also that memorable occasion on which I informed my French mother-in-law that in my country, they put préservatifs dans le pain. Yes, that really happened. But no, if you need a condom don’t go looking for one in a loaf of bread.

This post is in response the WordPress Daily Prompt ‘jolly’. Jolly is a false friend of the French word, joli or jolie in the feminine, which means pretty. Sometimes the two meanings intersect but it is far from a rule. Take Angelina Jolie. She is surely pretty – beautiful even – but rarely appears to be very jolly.

With the holidays upon us, there is often a good amount of both in the air. There is nothing prettier than a fresh layer of snow and our spirits are high as we prepare to ring out the old. And a rose, that jolliest of blooms, is a rose and is still a rose in French. All dressed in her winter coat.


38 thoughts on “Faux amis

  1. It happens in several tongues . One evening in Spain I said in public I didn’t want to embarrass this lady and the people around bursted out laughing . It happens that “embarrassar” in Spanish means making a woman pregnant !

    1. At least it’s an -er verb, and regular, so not one of the frightful ones.
      I was thinking about this very subject yesterday, as I stood in the very long, slow line at the pharmacie de garde. The guy in front of me had a supersize box of Durex, and I was thinking about how in France a condom is a cute town in Gers that undoubtedly has good duck, and not the prophylactic, which is a préservatif, which is not a preservative, and on and on to other such bilingual mind-bendings.
      BTW, the pharmacist positively sparkled at the Durex buyer, wishing him a “très bon fin du weekend!” as if there were any doubt.

      1. The funniest thing about Condom is this town is on the river ” la Baïse” . If you take the umlaut off I guess you know what this word means in French ! This bilingual pun between English and French always makes me smile . It’s to the point that the complete name of Condom is Condom-sur-Baïse . As capital letters don’t show umlauts you can see this sign on the roads ; “CONDOM-SUR-BAISE” . For an Anglo-French speaker it is always cracking .

  2. And all French learners beware the falsest of false friends ‘Google Translate’ which still says that I am excited translates as ‘Je suis excité’ which you well might be but not when you are writing a note expressing how much you are looking forward to a party full of your husband’s colleagues that he can’t attend himself …. 😳

    1. For this one you are not wrong . “Excité” found itself reduced to a sexual connotation in very recent times . For instance as a kid I remember the school mistresses commonly saying :” Ooh, today the children are very “excités” . I don’t know why and how this neutral excitement became a mostly sexual word in illiterate brains .

      1. My neighbours still use the word when talking about their children … for example at the weekend when setting off to the Ski station or when we all had a soirée in the garden here and I promised I would bring the dog so Daphné (aged 6) could play with her etc … it is sad in any language when words are hijacked and reinvented, I think. Without wishing to offend anyone the word ‘Gay’ in English always meant jolly and bright and cheerful, it then became synonymous with homosexuality and now (certainly in Britain) young people also use it to refer to something really ‘uncool’ i.e ‘that band are really gay’. I would prefer proper use of words and perhaps invention of really new words to embrace, for example, the LGBT community. Surely they deserve a lovely word of their own not one that is confusing to much older people who remember freely using the word in another context and one that is now being used in a derogatory way. Ideas on a post-card! 🏳️‍🌈 🌈

    2. Hilarious! Google translate is pretty fair for the basics, and I find it a huge timesaver for certain things. It doesn’t do contextual nuances, though, which are so important in French. Still, must’ve been quite the icebreaker!

  3. I had the same association when I saw today’s writing prompt. Of course, jolly and jolie, are false cognates that would be quite amusing to mix. Personally, I don’t speak French, but my husband does, and once he told me that I’m “jolie” and I though he meant I was cheerful or maybe even too loud, but, actually, it had completely another meaning- “beautiful”.

  4. A very common false friend for Italians is “actually”, which doesn’t mean “attualmente” (at this point, at this time). Another thing that always trips me up is writing lenghtier instead of lengthier. My Italian brains just refuses to conceive that a g could go next to another consonant which isn’t an h!

    1. Speaking of Italian, I was so confused when I first heard the French say ‘si’ my brain also did not want to believe it. To me it was Italian or Spanish, surely not French? Yet it is used to confirm a yes, or insist upon it. Sometimes real-life languages defy our ideas of what they should be.

      1. Yes “ciao” is very very commonly used in France . A kind of borrowing that stuck, like the Arabic shouf” to say “Look !”; “fissa” to say “fast”, or the Russian “bistro” to say a café-bar .

      2. Seems you missed something about the French “si” . It’s not made to insist, It means yes just like “oui” but after a negative affirmation or a negative question . “Cet homme ne sait pas jouer du piano. – Si, je l’ai entendu hier” .”Tu n’aimes pas le ski ? – Si, j’adore ça” .

  5. Actually there are “faux amis” inside the boundaries of French itself . A gentleman I know went to Montreal with a delegation of French graphic stories creators . In the official evening reception, in front of a large tuxedos and evening gowns audience including the Mayor and the Governor, his time came for a public speech . He happened to mention his own kids . The thing is “my kids” in French from France is “mes gosses” . When he said this he noticed a sense of unease among the audience . Not understanding he went on and later repeated “mes gosses” . This time he clearly saw that people were either embarrassed or schocked .

    Only too late someone told him that in Quebec “mes gosses” mean “my balls” .

  6. It’s the way-too-subtle-but-still-important differences that get me. I still haven’t figured out how to say that I’m frustrated about something–if I understand correctly, “frustrer” means that there’s an external cause… What if I’m frustrated with MYSELF??

    1. That’s a whole level of nuance I probably get wrong all the time without being aware of it. Goodness knows I’m often frustrated with myself. S’énerver? Agacer? Contrarier?

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