French is a beautiful, expressive language, but it’s frightfully easy to express oneself quite incorrectly.
Here are some French phrases that mean entirely something else in French from what you might think — and some can make the innocent abroad sound like anything but!
“Je suis fini!”
You may think you’ve said, “I’m finished,” because, well, that’s the literal translation of Je suis fini.
What you really said is, “I’m dead.” The correct French for I’ve finished is J’ai fini — literally, “I have finished.” If you find yourself ever needing to say the former, then you have, well, keep reading...
“J’ai un petit problème”
You may think you’ve said, “I have a little problem.”
What you really said is, “I have a huge problem.” (Alt meaning: “Boy, did I ever screw up this time!”)The French often say the opposite of what they really mean, as when, wondering whether I was biking in the right direction in the French countryside, I told a Frenchman where I was headed. His response...
I thought he said, “Oh, good.”
What he really said was, “Oh, really? That’s what you think!” (I discovered this 30 miles later.)
“Avez-vous des préservatifs?”
You may think you’ve said, “Do you have any jam?”
What you really said is, “Do you have any condoms?” Not to worry. In France, both are often available at breakfast. But don’t let this embarrassment discourage you from guessing at a French word by taking an English word and giving it a French pronunciation. It works more often than you’d think.
“Vous avez raison”
You may think you’ve said, “You have raisins.”
What you really said is, “You’re right” — literally, “You have reason.”
“Vous avez raisins”
You may feel certain that this time you’ve said, “You have raisins.”
Nice try. What you really said is, “You have grapes.” And while we’re on the topic of French fruit, une prune is a plum, and un plum is a prune (best to avoid the stone fruit family altogether while in France).
“Je suis chaud”
You may think you’ve said, “I’m hot.”
What you really said is, “I’m hot.” As in “hot for you, babe!” Go with j’ai chaud. As with vous avez raison, when in doubt, go with the j’ai construction. You have heat, you have cold, you have thirst, you have finished, because in French, when you are anything, it’s usually bad.
“Il est sale?”
You may think you’ve said, “Is it on sale?”
What you really said is, “Is it dirty?” This is a classic example of faux amis (“false friends”), French words that look like English words, but are unrelated.
You may think you’ve said, “I like to fly.”
What you really said is, “I like to steal.”
You may think you’ve said, “I like to steal.”
What you really said is, “I like to fly.” (Since French uses the same verb for “to fly” and “to steal” the intended meaning is left to the listener.)
You may think you’ve said to the woman who just sneezed, “Bless you!”
What you really said is, well, you’ve threatened to wound her. You should say à tes souhaits instead, offering the sneezer that his or her wishes will come true. By the way, the French don’t sneeze, “Achoo!” they go “Atchoum!”
“Vous voulez voir ma chatte?”
You may think you’ve said, “Do you want to see my (female) cat?”
What you really said is, “Do you want to see my pussy?” Yes, that one. Next time, offer a peek at “mon chat” instead, regardless of the animal’s actual gender. This is non-intuitive, because the French do use genders for animals, domestic and wild. A male turkey, for example, is a dindon, a female a dinde. By the time it winds up on white bread with mayo, it’s anyone’s guess!
“Une robe, s’il vous plaît”
You may think you’ve asked the hotel clerk, “May I have a robe?”
What you really said is, “May I have a dress?” Personally, I think I look great in red!
You may think you’ve said, “Waiter!”
What you really said is, “Boy!” signaling that you are a typically witless, obnoxious American who learned French from Lucille Ball reruns, and who should have no expectations of ever seeing said waiter again — until he brings the inflated check.
You may think you’ve said, “Have a good journey!”
What you really said is, “Have a good day!” The French have two words for “day.” Say bonjour when arriving and bon journée when leaving. Bon journée!
William Alexander is the author of the forthcoming book, Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart (Algonquin, September 2014) You can follow his adventures as he learns French the hard way on TheFrenchBlog.com and at http://williamalexander.com