Last week, we discussed expanding your French vocabulary with “vrais amis” (true cognates): French and English words that are identical or nearly identical in both spelling and meaning.
This week, we’re going to focus on “faux amis” (false cognates): words that look identical in both French and English, but have entirely different meanings.
What are Faux Amis?
Faux amis – false friends – are words that you simply have to learn to recognize. Because they look so comfortingly like English words, chances are you wouldn’t have any idea that they have another meaning…that is, until the French person you’re speaking with looks hopelessly confused or bursts into laughter!
Broadly speaking, there are three different kinds of false cognates:
1. Words that look alike but have no common root. These “true faux amis” happen to look similar in both French and English, but don’t – and never have – shared an etymological origin. The most common example is pain. The word means “bread” in French, but refers to an unpleasant physical sensation in English.
2. Words that share a common root but have different definitions. Linguists say that roughly one-third of the English language is composed of words that have French roots, which, in their turn, were often born of Latin words. The trouble is that over the centuries, certain of these words have taken on meanings different from their original French/Latin one. For example, despite the common origin between the French verb “crier” and the English verb “to cry,” the two words have different meanings. Crier has nothing to do with sobs and tears – it means “to shout.” The French word for “to cry” is pleurer.
3. Words that share a common root and have partially similar definitions. These words, called semi-faux amis (or semi-vrai amis), share at least one definition in French and English, but also have at least one definition that the other language doesn’t share. A good example of this is the word parfum (perfume). In both French and English, it refers to a a fragrance. In French, however, it also refers to a flavor. So, don’t be startled when in une glacerie (ice cream shop) you get the question: Quel parfum voulez-vous? (What flavor would you like?) They’re not asking you about your favorite perfume!
25 Common Faux Amis
Dozens of false cognates exist but some arise in conversation more frequently than others. Memorize this list of common faux amis – and learn the proper French word for your intended meaning. Not only will you speak French better, you’ll show that you have a keen grasp on the nuances of French vocabulary!
[column col=”1/4″]French Faux Amis
[/column] [column col=”1/4″]Correct English Word
to wait for
small change (coins)
[/column][column col=”1/4″]English Faux Amis
[/column] [column col=”1/4″]Correct French Word
ordre du jour
pièce (de monnaie)
maillot de corps
What French-English faux amis trip you up the most? Share with usbelow!