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The false friends in French

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False friends in French (faux-amis) are words that look similar to words in another language but have different meanings. They can be confusing for people learning French and can even lead to translation errors.

First, we will understand why false friends are present in the French language. Then we will give you some advice to avoid false friends when you speak French. And finally a list of some of the most famous false friends and an anecdote!

The origin of false friends!

After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 by the Duke of Normandy William the Conqueror, French became the language of the court and the elite in England for over 300 years. This led to a mixing of languages and the gradual incorporation of many French words into the English language.

Today, it is estimated that nearly 45% of English words have French origins. These words are often related to areas such as food, fashion, music, law, politics, arts, science, etc.

Here are some examples of English words that have French origins

  • Restaurant
  • Ballet
  • Cuisine
  • Parfum
  • Diplomatie
  • Rendez-vous
  • Étiquette
  • Champagne
  • Baguette
  • Déjà vu
False friends: English words that have French origins

However, even though these words have a French origin, they have often evolved differently in English and may have different meanings or nuances that French does not. This is an example of how languages can intersect and mix, but also evolve independently of each other.

Here are some tips to avoid false friends between English and French

  • Learn the exact meaning of words: It is important to know the exact meaning of words in each language, so as not to confuse words that have different meanings.
  • Use a bilingual dictionary: To check the exact meaning of a word, it is advisable to use a bilingual dictionary to ensure that the word is correctly understood in context.
  • Pay attention to context: Words can have different meanings in different contexts, so it is important to pay attention to the context in which words are used.
  • Study grammar and syntax: By studying the grammar and syntax of both languages, one can better understand how words are used in each language, allowing them to be used correctly.
  • Practicing the language: By practicing the language regularly, one can better understand the nuances and subtleties of each language, which allows for a better understanding of common words and expressions.

By following these tips, it is possible to reduce the risk of confusion and mistranslation between English and French, avoiding false friends and using words correctly in each context.

Cross-cultural communication can sometimes be difficult, and it is important to be patient and open-minded when interacting with people from different cultures. Remember that misunderstandings are a normal part of the process!

Examples of false friends

  • Une affaire: in French, an affair means a professional relationship, a good purchase, while in English it means a love affair.
  • Éventuellement: in French means “perhaps” or “possibly”, while “eventually” in English means “finally” or “in the end”.
  • Actuellement : en français means “now” in English, and not “actually” which means “in reality” in French.
  • Crier: “Crier” in French means “to shout” or “to yell”, but in English, “cry” is the word that corresponds to this emotional expression.
  • Le collège : means in French secondary school, or middle school, while in English it means university.
  • Librairie : “Librairie” in English means “library”, in French it means “bookstore”.
  • Assister: “Assister” in French means “to attend” in English, not “to assist” which means “to help”.
The false friends in French

An anecdote from my friend Gillian, a New Zealander living in Provence

Gillian is a very good friend of mine. She is from New Zealand and has lived in France for over 10 years. One day while we were having a glass of wine, she told me a very funny anecdote. I will share it with you because it illustrates perfectly the misunderstandings due to false friends…

She wanted to make jam. She went to buy the ingredients to make strawberry jam. She had bought the delicious fruit at the farmers’ market. She went into the store and asked a young man who worked in the store if there were any “preservatives.” She needed preservatives for her jam.

But preservatives have a completely different meaning in French. So the young man took her to the condom aisle… which in French is a male contraceptive, usually called “condom” in English. She was surprised and asked him where she could find the ingredients to make jam.

When she told me this story, we laughed a lot!

To avoid this kind of situation which are funny but can be embarrassing it is important to know some false friends!

Discover some fake friends with Celtina!


See also the faux pas in French.