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.