Beware of French "faux amis"!

Watch out for wolves in sheep's clothing! When it comes to French vocabulary, things are not always as they seem and a familiar-looking word can often mean something quite different in French...


Haven't we all done it at some point? Say an English word with our best French accent and hope for the best? With a significant part of both languages sharing the same origins this can often work and it can be a relief to have a bank of vocabulary already up our sleeve. Heaven knows there's already enough to learn. Right?


Not so fast! False cognates or faux amis (false friends) are words that are written the same way in French and English, but that have very different meanings. This can lead at best to confusion or at worst to cringingly embarrassing situations - so it pays not to be complacent.


The list of false cognates or semi-false cognates (words which have a similar spelling in both languages but different meanings) is extremely long, but here is a list of some of the more common ones that we hear:

Wolf in sheep's clothing - SarahRichterArt (Public domain)
Wolf in sheep's clothing - SarahRichterArt (Public domain)

#1. Sensible


In French, sensible does not mean sensible, but sensitive. If you want to say sensible you could try using raisonnable or prudent(e).



#2. Spécial(e)


In theory, spécial in French has the same meaning as special in English. However it is commonly used to mean that something or someone is a bit odd or weird. "Il est très spécial, ce monsieur...!" does not usually mean that the man is wonderful, but rather that there is something rather strange about him. Opt instead for unique or exceptionnel(le) to avoid conveying the wrong idea!



#3. Location


Location (f) is the word the French use for rental and nothing to do whatsoever with location as we use it in English. For that you would need to use the word lieu (m), localisation (f) or emplacement (m).



#4. Librairie


Beware of confusing this with library! In French bibliothèque (f) is the correct word for library, whereas librairie (f) is used for a bookshop!




#5 & 6. Bras and brasserie


Let's get this straight! Un bras is the French word for an arm and not a bra... In a similar vein une brasserie is a bar that serves food and definitely not to be confused with brassiere. The word for this particular undergarment is un soutien-gorge.



#7. Journée


If someone wishes you une bonne journée, they are wishing you a good day and not a good journey! For that they would likely say bon voyage (m) or bonne route (f)...

Minefield - © Christopher Michel - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en
Minefield - © Christopher Michel - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

#8. Préservatif


Potentially embarrassing if you are trying to determine if your food contains preservatives, un préservatif is a condom! The word you need is conservateur (m).



#9 & 10. Biologique and organique


On a similar note, when you see biologique or bio on food packets, it refers to organic production methods. Organique means organic for other common uses, such as organic matter (matière organique) or organic growth (croissance organique) and biologique also means the same as biological does in English. But just don't ask the waiter if the vegetables are organiques or he will suspect you think they are artificial!



#11 & 12. Coin and monnaie


A French coin is infact a corner in English and monnaie is small change... Une pièce (de monnaie) is the French word for a coin and argent (m) the word for money. Easy!



#13, 14 & 15. Raisin, grappe and prune...


When is un raisin not a raisin? When it's a grape! A dried grape is un raisin sec. And when is une grappe not a grape? When it's a bunch! Keep up, there's more! Une prune is not a prune either, but a plum. A dried plum is un pruneau... Confused?



#16. Stage


If you want to tread the theatrical boards in French you would do it on une scène, or if you've reached a certain point it would be une étape. Un stage, on the other hand, is an internship or training course.

Photo by Robert Doisneau
Photo by Robert Doisneau

#17. Passer


Passer un examen means to take an exam, so if you tell a French person j'ai passé mon examen, don't be surprised if they don't congratulate you! Réussir is the verb you need, so instead say j'ai réussi mon examen!



#18. Joli(e)


Joli or jolie means pretty and can be used to describe people, objects and places. If you want to say jolly, try joyeux (m) or joyeuse (f) instead.



#19. Actuellement


Actually, this does not mean actually! The French actuellement means presently or at present. En fait, en fait is what you need to say!



#20. Charger


Une voiture bien chargée* is not a car that is well paid for, but a well loaded car. Charger means to load. Faire payer (quelqu'un) is to charge (someone) money.


* If you happen to have an electric car, you could be saying that the battery is charged, of course!


This is just the tip of the iceberg, but as you can see, faux amis can pop up anywhere in the French language, so it's important not to be too complacent and to keep on with learning your French vocabulary!



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