Let’s face it: French & English have quite a few false cognates. In case you don’t know, false cognates are words that sound similar, but have completely different meanings. In this article, I will be clearing up five different false cognates between French & English. These five false cognates are:


  1. Actually vs Actuellement
  2. Gopher vs Une Gaufre
  3. Preservative vs Un préservatif
  4. Library vs Une librairie
  5. I miss you vs Je te manque



1. Actually vs Actuellement


This is a really common mistake that some people make when speaking French. I used to mix these up all of the time until I lived in France and was corrected by a friend of mine. In English, ‘actually’ is used as a word to emphasize something, or to announce something unexpected. For example:

  • Person A: Did you go to the mall today?
  • Person B: Actually, surprisingly, I didn’t. I originally planned to go, but then I changed my mind and went to visit my friend instead.

In French, ‘actuellement’ has a completely different meaning, and it is closer to ‘currently’ or ‘at the moment’. For example, I recently lived in Beijing for a couple of months studying Chinese, but I am from Canada. Because of the context of “while in Beijing”, I could have said ‘Je suis Canadien, mais j’habite actuellement à Pékin’. This translates to ‘I am Canadian, but currently I am living in Beijing’.



2. Gopher vs Une Gaufre


This is not one that you’ll come across every day, but I find it amusing, so I’ve decided to include it in this article. In English, a ‘gopher’ is a small rodent that likes to dig holes in the ground. In French, une gaufre is actually a waffle (like the food).


I became aware of this difference when I was living in Blois (a small city about two hours south of Paris). There used to be a number of places that sold waffles in this city. The first time that I saw a sign for ‘des gaufres’ I was taken aback! I couldn’t believe that French people would eat gophers. Thankfully, after going into the ‘gopher’ stores, I understood that instead of selling rodents, they were in fact selling sweet & tasty waffles. Phew!!



3. Preservative vs Un Préservatif


This is a classic false cognate between French & English. In English, a ‘preservative’ is something you’ll find in different foods to make sure the food doesn’t rot. However, in French, you’ll never find ‘un préservatif’ in your food. Or rather, if you do, you definitely shouldn’t eat it. Un préservatif in English directly translates to a condom. I learned this word when I was about sixteen years old. I had a French exchange student living at my house at the time, and we had all gone out for dinner one day with my family.


At the restaurant, my friend ordered a root beer (a type of soft drink). I live in Canada and French is one of our official languages. This means that the root beer ingredients were written in both French and English. My exchange student was a little nervous about drinking his drink because on the bottle, it said that the root beer contained ‘un préservatif’. I’m happy to say that it was just a false translation by the soft drink company, and there wasn’t anything in my friend’s drink that shouldn’t have been there.



4. Library vs Une librairie


For ages I thought that these two words meant the same thing, when in reality they’re quite different. In English, a ‘library’ is a place where you can go to borrow books. However, in French, ‘une librairie’ is a bookstore (i.e. a place you go to buy books). The place you go to borrow books in French would be ‘une bibliothèque’. So please, if you are ever in France, don’t take any books from the ‘librairie’ without paying. You will most definitely get in trouble with the authorities.



5. 'I miss you' vs 'Je te manque'


This isn’t exactly a false cognate, but it is still something that second language speakers mix up, so I’ve decided to include it in this list. In English, if you say, ‘I miss you’, it implies that I am the person who is doing the missing. In other words, I am the one feeling the emotion of missing you. However, in French that is not at all how it works. If you say ‘je te manque’, it means that you miss me. It took me some time to wrap my head around this difference, but after some thinking, it hit me: it’s almost as if you’re saying, ‘I’m missing a part of myself because you’re not here’. Quite poetic, don’t you think?


We’ve now gone through five false cognates in English & French. To summarize, the five false cognates we covered were:


  1. Actually vs Actuellement – Emphasizing surprise in English while meaning ‘currently’ in French.
  2. Gopher vs Une gaufre – An animal in English, but a type of dessert (or breakfast) in French.
  3. Preservative vs Un préservatif – Something found in some foods in English, but a condom in French.
  4. Library vs Une librairie – A place to borrow books in English and a place to buy books in French.
  5. 'I miss you' vs 'Je te manque' – ‘I miss you’ in English, but ‘you miss me in French’.


Although these may seem confusing at first, don’t give up! After a little bit of studying, you will be able to use all of these expressions correctly in no time.


Hero image by Pj Accetturo (CC0 1.0)