Guest Post: Ten common French-English false friends

Today we have a real treat in the form of a guest post courtesy of the team at Textualis, a linguistic services company based in Montreal. So, without further ado, let’s get into the post!

False friends, or “faux amis”, are an obstacle that many of us encounter when we negotiate the vagaries of another language. We may think we are confident of the meaning of a word but often we are sadly mistaken.

So what exactly is a false friend, and what vocabulary dangers do they present? Despite being a Germanic language, English nonetheless has many words in common with French, a Romance language. While words like “intelligence” and “accident” present no issues as they are extremely similar in both languages (minus the nuances in pronunciation of course), this simplicity invites us down a dangerous path as it can lead us to believe that we understand more than we actually do. Indeed, not all words that appear to be the same in French and English actually are and, in many cases, the meanings are miles apart.

How does the false friend phenomenon occur?

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to three types of false friend, two of which are true false friends and one of which is a partial false friend.

True false friends occur either when words have the same root but have taken different paths to adopt non-congruent meanings over the years, or when words have no root in common but look alike by coincidence.

Partial false friends can potentially be even more confusing as they have a common root and some common meaning but other areas of their meaning differ.

What sort of words can present a difficulty?

While there are so many false friends out there just waiting to trip us up, a good place to start is getting to know ten of the most common ones between French and English. Of course, hiring a professional translation company or freelancer can help you avoid any confusion.

Demander – In French this means “to ask for” but in English has very different connotations. If you demand a meeting with someone it suggests a sense of urgency, determination, and possibly a certain amount of ire or concern.

Bribes – This could definitely be a source of some embarrassment as in French bribes means “fragments” while it has very different connotations in English, being something that is given to extort an action or favor. The root of the word actually comes from the French for small amounts of bread that were given as alms.

Fabrique – An English person looking at this word may assume that it means fabric, as in a material from which items such as clothing can be made but in French it’s actually the building within which such creation takes place i.e. une fabrique is a factory.

Chair – You would not be sitting on this in France, unless you want to sit on “flesh” of course. The actual French translation of the English chair is chaise, which is not a million miles away.

Librairie – In summoning up the English word “library” you are not that far away as this means “bookshop” in France. However, you may not fare too well if you try to borrow a book from a librairie without paying… If you want to borrow a book without engaging in criminal activity, you need to find yourself a bibliothèque.

Patron – If you are a patron in France then you are the boss, whereas in England you are a client or customer; completely different ends of the spectrum.

Chauffeur – This word is a partial false friend as it can have the same meaning in both French and English but in French can also mean any driver, whether employed to do so or not.

Porc – If you like your meat then you will recognize the relation between this word and the English version, pork. In France it also means the pig itself and pigskin. Another partial false friend.

Actuel – A very common false friend which in French means current or present, not real or authentic as in the English word “actual”.

Préservatif – The final false friend in this list is one that you definitely wouldn’t want to get confused. If you’re looking at the word and thinking of the English “preservative” then think again. In French if you’re asking for a préservatif you are asking for a condom.

From these examples alone you can see how easy it is for confusion to occur, so always be aware of false friends. Any other common false friends (or more interesting, funny ones!) you’ve come across in French/English translation? Feel free to leave a comment!


9 responses to “Guest Post: Ten common French-English false friends”

  1. 7 out of the 10 mentioned above are also false friends in Romanian (compared to English), as Romanian is a Romance language, just like French. Fabrică, librărie, patron, șofer (read ʃɔˈfɛːr), porc, actual, prezervativ. And they have the exact same meanings as the French words mentioned in the post.

    1. That’s really interesting, I remember reading about the two languages’ shared Romance roots (perhaps from you!) but I have to admit that that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Romanian :/
      Is it similar to French in terms of grammar too? So, for example, would it be easier for someone with knowledge of French to pick up the language?

      1. Out of all the Romance languages, Romanian is most similar to Italian in terms of vocabulary at least, this being one of the reasons I can understand Italian very well (speaking it is another story).

        French and Romanian grammars share some features, but not enough to help someone with knowledge of French to learn Romanian. A few examples: while French nouns have two genders (masculine and feminine), Romanian ones have three (there’s a neuter gender, which is a combination of masculine and feminine). French verbs: 3 regular conjugations + irregular verbs; Romanian: 4 regular + irregular, but within one regular category the verbs may function so differently, that they actually become more like 11 (regular) conjugations.

        The usual word order in both languages is subject-verb-object.

        Of course, I could go on and on (that’s what passion for languages does to one). I am actually working on a post on French-Romanian similarities (and differences). The idea came when Emeline Jamoul posted an article on Facebook on French expressions (yes, there are similarities here too). So stay tuned! 🙂

      2. Ah, excellent, really looking forward to it! I want to know more now 😀 It sounds fascinating, the last thing I need is to start learning another language but it’s always so tempting!

  2. Oh, tell me about it. I’m planning to start learning Portuguese 🙂 But I guess it should be fairly easy for me. And maybe later another language (German would be nice). If I ever meet a fairy, genie, golden fish or whoever grants wishes, I know what I’d ask for.

    1. haha, I know what you mean. 🙂

      Go for it, I took a 6-month Portuguese course a few years back and really enjoyed it. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned now unfortunately, but it was still nice to pick up the basics!

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