French Friday: Ah, Those False Friends…

The more I speak French with my daughter the more I’m reminded that my native language and American English share a fair amount of false friends. Faux amis in French designate words that look exactly the same in both languages but have very different meanings.

I made my first acquaintance with false friends over my very first trip to New York City in the mid 1980s. The American couple who hosted me described one of their friends as being special. Although the French adjective spécial (e) also means unique, it is not the first choice to describe someone who has a very special place in your life since spécial is also used to describe someone or something that exists away from the accepted norms. It took me a while to understand that my friends were speaking highly of their special friend and didn’t find her peculiar.

More than a decade later I made closer encounters with more false friends.

When one of my daughters invited a kindergarten classmate for a play date, I met a precocious six-year-old boy who spoke eloquently and was a huge fan of the adverb actually. Which I instinctively translated in actuellement. But, actually means in fact and not currently which is the translation of the French actuellement.

Years went by, yet I could still occasionally think in French. Once, because of an injury I needed physical therapy. Frustrated with the slow progress, I expressed my concerns. My PT kept telling me that I would eventually recover full usage of my left knee. Although his warm smile was encouraging I had a hard time believing him. In fact, I freaked out, unable to accept that he meant that in the end I would be able to use my knee as I used to. In my mind, he meant possibly, which is éventuellement in French. Ultimately, my PT was right: I finally fully recovered.

When my daughter talks with me, texts me, or e-mails me, she makes the effort to do so in French, and I do too, although it would sometimes be much simpler in English. If only to avoid those false friends…

Of course, my daughter has always been able to avoid the classic ones, such as pain, which means bread in French and not hurt, or coin, which designates a corner in French and not some currency, or still store, which is a blind in French. She knows that when real estate agents claim that location is key to a property they are not talking about a rental but about localisation.

But when she read passer un examen, she naturally assumed that the candidate had been successful after taking the exam. In fact, passer un examen means to take an exam. To pass an exam is être reçu à un examen.

False friends are confusing to nonnative speakers. But they can be fun, too.

When recently my daughter told me in French that she didn’t like people who lectured her, using the English noun lecture, I had to smile. A lecture in French is a reading. People who give you moral lessons don’t lecture you. They give you a lesson or a sermon. They sermonne you. By the way she wasn’t talking about me 🙂

I’m not immune to my own mistakes if I don’t pay attention. When I bump into adjectives such as comprehensive, for example, I must remember that it doesn’t mean understanding as it does in French, but detailed, complete, which are my French détaillé(e) and complet (ète).

Or when I instinctively use design instead of designate, thinking of désigner, which means to designate.

Below is a very short list of words that have the potential to create mistakes, more or less funny. I picked a few nouns, adjectives, and verbs from American English and not British, which has its own set of false friends. If you took French in high school or college, you may have met some of these false friends too.

A cave: une grotte and not a cellar

Confidence: confiance and not a secret

Grand: grandiose and not tall

Sensible: raisonnable and not sensitive

Rude: impoli and not rough

Confection: friandises and not ready-made-clothes

Notice: avis, préavis and not instructions

To demand: exiger and not to ask


Witnessing my daughter’s immense progress and occasional setbacks reminded me that she and her siblings didn’t have it easy, contrary to what many English native speakers have so often told me. You don’t automatically become fluent in your parents’ native language only because they are your parents. You have an edge, but only work will make you bilingual. Which explains why my daughter is so, so close to be.

But I knew all along that she would.






  1. Thank you so much for this, Evelyne. I learned French at school and spent 6 weeks in Paris after uni and a further week or so speaking French in Belgium. I have a horrible feeling that I fell for many of these false friends and it would’ve been helpful to have such a list at school. These words really lure you in. I love words, so this was a pleasure to read from that perspective as well.
    Best wishes,

    • Thank you so much for your visit and comment, Rowena. I appreciate them. Each of us fell for these false friends, regardless of the language, I think. Like you, I love words and find these tiny differences between them quite fascinating. Best to you too.

  2. This is an interesting post (and I like the humorous ending). I wonder if the etymology of the English words are from the French, or if they both have a common roots. Sorry, I think about things like that. I looked up the word you ended with – I may be spending my lunch hour in pursuit of the others –

    • Thank you, Dan. Not too long ago a French book has been published on the subject. I need to find the title, but what I read suggested that English borrowed a lot to French, via Normandy in fact back when England and the Normans fought against each other but forged alliances too. I’ll look into the link you forward you. I’m glad to see that this topic seems to interest everyone 🙂

  3. I love it!
    J’ai toujours du mal avec Eventually haha, et le pire c’est ” to propose” je demande beaucoup de gens en mariage quand je parle anglais:D

  4. So fascinating Evelyne, I find it endlessly interesting when you talk about the things you’ve had to get used to as a speaker of a second language, and the way your daughter’s learning triggers those memories.

    • Thnak you, Andrea. Yes, it is true that a lot comes back as my daughter digs deeper into the language she used to hear every day until she started school. We both love languages, so it’s interesting and fun too.

  5. I love this post. I encounter this regularly, but oddly, usually with Spanish words my daughter uses. There are so many cognates, we start to assume, and forget there are many false cognates, or as you wrote, faux amis.
    That PT bit cracked me up!

    • The PT episode makes me smile now. At the time, not at all!
      I don’t speak Spanish well enough to tell, but it’s no surprise to find false friends between Spanish and English too. Thank you, Joey for your visit.

  6. Love this. Now I’m thinking of “false friends” in English — British English vs. American. Like when you table a bill in Washington, you take it off the table, but when you do it in London, you put it on the table. Then there are subways, jumpers, and a few other things . . .

  7. Your daughter is lucky to have you by her side.

  8. Such and interesting and intelligent post, Evelyne… you always write posts that are both relevant and fun…
    My partner and I also have endless discussions over the differences between his American English, and what I call my ‘real’ English !!…. one of the things I find fascinating about his American English is that so many of the words are the original ones the settlers brought with them some hundreds of years ago… similar, I suppose, to what happened with Quebec French…

  9. It got strange in Hebrew because of the similarity of pronouns. “WHO” in Hebrew means “he” in English. “Me” means where, not myself. Worst of all, “Ma” means “what” and I can’t tell you how many times I said “What” when a kid said “Ma” to be told “No, not you.”

  10. The one that used to make us laugh in French lessons was ‘Le telephone ne marche pas’. No wonder we English stick determinedly to English 🙂

    • Ha ha! It’s true that we use the verb marcher with the meaning of working. But working has also other meanings in English.
      For example, when a waiter or waitress asks me if I’m still working on my dish, I always feel like smiling. I’m not working when I eat, right? 🙂

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