Some words of English origin are completely and shamelessly adopted in French and are thus easily spotted as anglicisms (called lexical anglicisms). A good example of this would be faire du snowboard: obviously snowboard is a completely English word, and its French counterpart is actually planche à neige. Others, like semantic or syntactic anglicisms, are more subtle and are thus more likely to go unnoticed. Same goes with a lot of false friends, which I will debunk in this article. False friends, especially for English speakers, can be a considerable yet easily avoidable trap, so long as the learner knows which words to watch out for.
Let’s go straight into the topic of false friends. What are they? Just as their name suggests, they appear to be helpful, when they really aren’t. In many cases, they might even become a hindrance to communication. And because of a very close cultural history, French has many words that resemble English words. This can be most useful when one first comes to integrate the new language, but when it’s time to express your ideas accurately and efficiently, knowing the traps will potentially help you avoid a fair share of confusion. Here’s a list of some of the most common false friends in French and English.
The “student friendly” ones
So, you’re off to study and you’re looking for the librairie… right? Well, it’s more complex than that. You might indeed make a stop at the librairie beforehand, because it’s effectively a book shop. But, chances are, you’d rather be looking for a quiet, cost-free environment. Which is where the proper word in French comes into play: bibliothèque. Remember this one, it might come in handy! ;)
Well, that’s a properly confusing one. If someone is asking you in French what was discussed in this week’s lecture, they’re actually not asking about class. Rather, they want to catch up with the reading content. Something you might actually have been doing at the bibliothèque!
- De quoi était-il question dans la lecture de cette semaine?
This one may be child-friendly, but in fact, crayon in French simply means pencil! If you’re really looking to say crayon, instead use crayon de cire (literally wax pencil). French loves to put things precisely: crayon de cire, crayon à colorier, crayon de plomb, pousse-mine (literally push-lead!), crayon-feutre… you can surely customise your very own set of words to describe what you prefer using!
In French, digital really mostly relates to doigt (finger). Such a thing as empreinte digitale actually means fingerprint. If you’re wanting to express a digital environment, you’d be better off using numérique, as in un environnement numérique.
The “money-wise” ones
Yes, there is a word store in French. As you may have guessed, it is absolutely not going to land you into any sort of shop, nor is it going to help you in your storage quest. Instead, a francophone might be intrigued by your quest for window coverings. A perfectly grammatically correct French question such as, Où est le store? will definitely cause a francophone to be intrigued by your quest for blinds!
You’re producing a statistics report and come up with a figure in the results. This may well work in English, but in French, figure most often just means face (or the image that you are projecting: this word is quite figurative), and never a numerical count. An emoji at the end of your financial analysis is probably not what you’re looking for!
Surprisingly, the meaning of the word coin in French is miles away from the actual English coin. It’s positively unrelated to either your spare change or even the verb for when a new phrase is created. Instead, it simply means corner.
The painfully comical ones (les cocasseries)
Does this one look like it’s referring to some kind of holy action? Well, unless you believe some god is out there to hurt you… not really. Blessé(e) actually just means wounded or hurt. So if you’re feeling blessed about something in your life, you can say that you are béni(e), although this tends to have a very (Christian) religious connotation in French.
I always found it funny that when every time I’d go home from school, I would walk pass a bagel shop (Montréal is famous for its bagels!) which would advertise with a single word on a big, red sign in bold and capital letters: PAIN (!). Of course for an anglophone, one would certainly wonder why a shop needs to advertise such a dreadful “asset.” But when you think of it in French, it goes absolutely unnoticed: because it simply means “bread.”
As much as bread has absolutely nothing to do with painful things, the word peréservatif can be just as amusing if not plain embarrassing. The English word preservative may seem completely innocuous and even boring, but you only need one simple translation mistake for it to go horribly wrong. Such as, when a phrase like “no preservatives added” would be poorly translated to aucun préservatif ajouté on a bottle of juice (this is classical- I’ve seen it more than once). Seeing as the French word préservatif actually means condom, prepare yourself for many francophones to imagine a floating piece of latex in their drink. Dodgy.
See how tricky it can be? It’s all well and good to recognise similar words in a new language, but the step further is to do a little bit of research. Some false friends will be obvious if you’ve made the mistake once, such as pain or store. But others, which are more subtle, like librarie or préservatif actually may appear to be so well integrated in the sentence that they become a semantic anglicism. This is because they are so hard to detect that they may be frequently used in lieu of the proper word, which expresses the actual meaning.
What can you do? First, know that everyone makes mistakes: it’s not the end of the world. Even native French speakers like myself learn to use such treacherous anglicisms and sometimes, you just have to unlearn them. Ultimately, it takes regular training. The more vocabulary you have and the better you know it, the easier it will be for you to spot a problem. When I’m unsure about a word, I usually look it up in a dictionary, which is my ultimate reference. For French, I highly recommend CNRTL.fr which not only has thorough definitions, but also synonyms and etymology, which can prove rather useful. I find that being interested in etymology has always helped me in better understanding why the words that we use have come to take the meaning they now have. It also helps me to understand how they differ from one language to another.
And when it comes to learning vocabulary, of course you can memorise lists of words, but really, I’ve always found that the best way to really integrate a language is to use it in action. So go on and start speaking French! And remember that you’ll inevitably keep getting better with practice.
A few online resources on the topic