This expression coined by Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny in their book "Les Faux Amis ou les pièges du vocabulaire anglais", (1928) is used to define words that just appear to have similar meaning in two different languages. They are called false friends or more technically false cognates, because they can deceive you, and if you are learning languages, it is very likely that you’ll run into trouble with them.

So, be aware of false friends! …like this one

For Spanish speaking people, embarrassed sounds like embarazada (pregnant).
And every teacher uses this quite worn joke as a reminder :

It can be embarrassing to be embarazada, (pregnant)! least if you learn from Spanish to English...

False friends are quite common between Spanish and English. These two languages often have words derived from a common etymological stem (usually Latin) but that eventually have evolved to different meanings. Some common examples are "carpet" and "carpeta" (folder) or "to remove" and "remover" (to stir). Even Babelfish translates the latter wrongly!

Confusion is usually harmless, but not always: if you natively speak Spanish and catch a cold while abroad, you might find yourself in trouble if you ask the pharmacist for some drug to cure a constipation.

Not all false friends are "false cognates". Many of those which cause problems between English and other European languages are real cognates - words in different languages with similar forms sharing a common etymology - where one has undergone a semantic shift and the other has not. For example, the English adjective "actual", meaning "real", in contrast with imaginary or predicted, has true cognates in most Western European languages - e.g. French actuel, German aktuel, Italian attuale, Dutch actueel - all of which mean "current", of the moment. In this case it was the English word which changed its meaning in or around the eighteenth century. Eventually (after a long delay) and its cognates eventuellement, eventualmente, eventueel etc. (possibly, maybe) are another common example along the same lines.

Actual false cognates - homonyms or near-homonyms in different languages with distinct meanings and unrelated etymologies - are somewhat rarer, at least in fairly closely related languages like those of Europe (apart from a few non-indo-European isolates). Examples might be the (unlikely) confusion between butter and donkeys in Italian and Spanish (es burro = it asino; it burro = es mantequilla), or an English kiss and a Finnish cat, or French and English meanings of chair.

A French guy was chatting with an English girl. And she thought he was really cute and his French accent was so sexy. But when he said: "You have a beautiful corpse", she slapped him on the face. In French, a corps is a body, not a dead body as an English corpse.

False friends are words from different languages which meaning differ although they look almost the same. There are hundreds or thousands of false friends, or faux amis, between English and French (Actually, the countries themselves are faux amis...) Here is a short list, with strong English words and underlined French words. You may add new lists for French or other languages.

  • actuellement vs actually: French people will often use actually when they really mean at the present time, because it's what actuellement means in French. Actually may be translated in French with en réalité. In a similar way, éventuellement means possibly, while the French for eventually is finalement.
  • when French people attendent, they are waiting for something, and not attending a meeting.
  • French armes are always weapons. The word for the part of the body that extends from the shoulder to the hand (arms) is bras, which is another faux ami...
  • If an Englishman blesses you, you may go to heaven. If a Frenchman blesse, you may go to the hospital, because he has hurt you.
  • a French car is an intercity bus. It's also a conjunction which means because. The French for car is voiture.
  • caractère vs character: a caractère refers to the temperament or characteristics of a person or a thing, not a movie character (who is a personnage).
  • French collège students are much younger than American college students since they're aged 11 to 15. American college corresponds approximately to French université.
  • a French is compréhensif when he understands people and forgives their little mistakes; comprehensive is translated with détaillé or exhaustif when it has not the same meaning.
  • con is the commonest insult in French slang, it's not someone who favors something as in pros and cons.
  • décevoir a Frenchman is to disappoint him, while deceiving an Englishman is to trick him (tromper).
  • a French décade normally lasts for ten days, while an English decade lasts for ten years (décennie).
  • dramatique vs dramatic: dramatique refers to a tragic event, while dramatic is used for any sensational event, good or bad.
  • homme is a man, while his home is sa maison.
  • In France, you buy books in librairies and read them for free in bibliothèques (publiques). In England, you buy books in bookshops and read them for free in (public) libraries.
  • A mail in France used to be an alley or a square planted with trees. Nowadays, it is an equivalent of e-mail.
  • A French phrase is a sentence, while an English phrase is only un groupe de mots or une expression. But a French sentence is either a judgment pronounced by a judge, or a statement that says seemingly profound things about the people or the world.
  • a Frenchman who reste (stays) for a few days does not always rest (se reposer).
  • French people are surprised when they see for sale in a shop, because sale means dirty and fort (with a trailing t) means very.
  • a square in France is a small square which really has the shape of a square (and which is usually planted with trees in the middle). In London, Trafalgar square is anything but square. Apparently France borrowed the word from English and never modified its original meaning while it acquired new meanings in England. This may be due to the fact that it's less commonly used than the generic French name of a square: place.
  • If a French employer wants to hire you for a stage, you may accept if you are looking for an internship, not if you are an actor and want to play on the stage (scène).
  • last but not least: if a Frenchman asks for les waters, he doesn't want to drink water or to meet the family of a pop star, but to go to the toilets (water-closet)!

Most of these false friends occur when one language borrows a word from another language because it's interested in only one of the meanings of this word. They may also result from random evolution of non-cognate words.

Nowadays English meanings tend to penetrate the French vocabulary because of American influence. For example, it is not uncommon to hear décade instead of décennie, or réaliser with the meaning of realize. I have even heard dramatique used for positive changes, i.e with the English meaning.

Thanks Albert Herring for telling me about the difference between bookshops and bookstores...

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