What a mistake to make – falling foul of French-English false friends
A British tourist was reportedly forced to spend the night in the municipal buildings of a small French town over the weekend, after confusing Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) with somewhere she could book a room for the night. It's a fairly easy mistake to make, as anyone who's ever tried learning a foreign language, and tripped up over False Friends, will know. But what are False Friends, and where do they come from?
French is still the most common source of borrowed words in English
Though actually a Germanic language, English often seems more closely to resemble a Romance language, and in particular, French. This is the natural result of close geographical and cultural contact between the two countries over many centuries. English has been 'borrowing' words from French since the Middle Ages, and this borrowing escalated after 1066 when Norman French became the official language of government, the church and the upper classes in England. David Crystal suggests that, by the end of the 13th century, more than 10,000 French words had entered the English language and that of these, more than 75% are still in use today.¹ French is still the most common source of borrowed words in English, and vice versa.
The upshot of all this word-trading is that it is easy to spot similarities between the vocabularies of French and English. Similarities, particularly in the area of vocabulary, can be both good news and bad, however. They can aid the learner, offering an encouraging springboard into learning a new language, but they can also be traps – False Friends – which lull learners of both languages into a false sense of security.
French loan words in English
Some French words and expressions have been taken into English wholesale, with their Frenchness intact, like sang-froid, cause célèbre, par excellence, and déjà vu. Some, like boutique, detour, nuance, and amateur still look and sound quite French but are used with ease by all of us, with little thought for where they came from. Most of us see them as English words. Other words have been adapted to English orthography but reliably retain the meaning or meanings of the French original: they are True Friends. Here are a few examples, with their French equivalents: age / âge; literature / littérature; authority / autorité; soldier / soldat; vinegar / vinaigre; comfort / confort; baggage / bagage.
Note that even when the meanings are the same between the two languages, traps still lie in wait for the learner of either one. These slight differences in spelling account for a significant proportion of errors made by learners of English. French learners of English frequently spell comfortable with an n instead of an m and literature with two ts, for example. Another thing to watch out for is countability. English baggage may mean the same as French bagage, but there is an important grammatical difference – the English word cannot follow an indefinite article (a/an) or take a plural form (baggages), whereas the French word can.
English word pairs
Avid borrowing from French over the centuries, particularly in the areas of administration, law, religion, gastronomy, fashion, literature and the arts, and science and learning, followed two different trends. Often, the newly-borrowed words had the same meanings as established native words, so they either replaced the existing words, or the two words lived side-by-side in the language, but developed slightly different meanings or nuances. This is how we came to have the Old English word pig for the live animal and the French-origin word pork for the animal's edible meat. This second phenomenon led to the existence of word pairs in English – another tricky aspect of English. Thus, English ended up with both begin and commence, help and aid, wedding and marriage, freedom and liberty, hide and conceal, and many more. The temptation for French learners of English is, naturally, to use the French-origin word, which can often lead to their English sounding quaint or excessively formal: Can I aid you? or I want to ameliorate my English.
English loan words in French
French has also borrowed a considerable part of its lexicon from English, and continues to do so today, though with some resistance from the Académie Française. The case of le weekend is well documented. Borrowed unchanged from English in 1926, le weekend was by no means the first French borrowing from English, however.
The soaking up of English words into the French lexicon has been so pervasive that there is even a word – Franglais – for the mixture of French and English that results. The term was first coined by René Étiemble in his (1964) book Parlez-vous Franglais, where he took a light-hearted look at the phenomenon. Since then, the matter has come under more serious scrutiny from an anxious Government and a number of watchdog organisations which see the infiltration of English as a direct threat to the purity of the French language.
In August 1994, French Minister for Culture, Jacques Toubon, put forward a law aimed at restricting the influx of English and reintroducing new words to replace anglicisms already in place. Toubon was keen to introduce fines for people using the anglicism computer instead of the home-grown word ordinateur, for example. A Government paper produced in 1996 and aimed at inventing or reintroducing French words to replace the plethora of anglicisms in the fields of economics and finance specifically, gives a list of 70 replacements including: arbitrage for trade-off; la vente agressive for hard selling; jeune pousse for start-up, and achat sur simulation électronique for virtual shopping. The author stresses that the main aim is to invent new French words for new phenomena soon enough to stamp out the wholesale adoption of the English term.
But it is not just the lexical growth areas of computing and commerce that are a source of English words in French. Franglais is everywhere, particularly among the young, who are most influenced by American culture and whose day-to-day lives are immersed in football, popular music, film and television and whose vocabularies are consequently peppered with the UK and US English words they hear. The French media, too, called upon to cover events as they happen, are not always able to wait for a French word to be invented before they write their reports. Hence, on 18th April 2003, during the conflict in Iraq, Le Monde reporter, Yves Eudes, wrote the headline Un jour dans la vie d'un 'embedded'. With the word embedded only just coined in English, there was no time to wait for a French equivalent to be invented.
Invented English words (pseudo-anglicisms)
Pseudo-anglicisms are common in French. These are loan words gone wrong. They look like English words and often came from English words but they are used differently. Here are a few examples of these French words, followed by their meaning in English: baskets / trainers; catch / wrestling; slip / underpants or briefs; stop / hitchhiking; snob / follower of fashion.
Some of these deceptive anglicisms are shortenings of the original English word: foot from football; golf from golf course; spot (meaning advertisement) from spotlight; snack from snack bar; goal from goalkeeper; pull from pullover.
Some false anglicisms are invented by analogy with other English terms, presumably out of a feeling that they ought, logically, to exist. For example, the suffix -man, as used to create sportsman and cameraman, is added to tennis and rugby also, to create tennisman and rugbyman, and a recordman/woman is a record-holder.
The French love affair with -ing
The -ing suffix in English is used to form the present participle of regular verbs: going, coming, eating etc. It is also used to form nouns from verbs (and sometimes other nouns and adverbs). These nouns usually denote activities: dancing, parking, smoking, counselling etc, or the results of activities: building, painting etc.
The versatility of this suffix for creating nouns has been taken to extremes in French since before the 20th century, and often results in English-looking words which have no direct meaning equivalent in English. For example, le lifting (1955), for English facelift, and my favourite, more recent, example is le zapping (pre-1986) for television channel-hopping. Even when there is a direct noun equivalent in English, its meaning may still pose subtle problems for the learner. For example, le shopping, borrowed in the early 19th century, is mainly restricted to the more leisurely browsing of boutiques or department stores, rather than the mundane dash to the local supermarket for milk and tea bags it sometimes means in English.
French anglicisms ending in -ing often denote the location where an activity typically takes place. Hence, un dancing, un camping, un bowling, un parking, un living and un skating, are a dance hall, campsite, bowling alley, car park / parking space, living room and a skating rink, respectively. Sometimes they denote clothes, as in le smoking (dinner jacket / tuxedo) and le training, which means the same as English training, but also a tracksuit. They can even denote substances, as is the case with le shampooing. The majority, however, denote activities, as is the case in English, but as with the -man suffix, the French have invented a few of their own which can be false friends, e.g le footing (jogging), or have no equivalent noun in English, e.g le forcing (used in sports to refer to intensive attack).
A lthough false anglicisms ending in -ing are often ephemeral, their introduction into the French language continues apace and is one of the primary targets of the language purity watchdogs. These -ing anglicisms are also a notable source of confusion between French learners of English and native speakers. A common ground of vocabulary is assumed which simply isn't there.
Utterly False Friends
These are, perhaps, the ones to learn first. Fortunately, in most cases, context will help a great deal. Because they have no common roots, these words rarely appear in contexts where they could be confused. Here is a list of a few to watch out for (French words are shown first and their meaning in English second): pain / bread; flipper / pinball machine; location / rental, hire; chat / cat; chair / flesh.
Because these words were once related but have now grown apart, they often refer to objects or concepts in the same semantic domains. This is where the greatest risk of confusion lies and one where learners of either language must exercise and sustain caution – it is tempting to clutch at identical or similar words when using another language. There are too many false friends between French and English to cover them all here. The lists of common false friends given below are selected from The Cambridge International Dictionary of English², and are a good place to start thinking about the relationships between words in different languages which share common roots and the problems they can cause.
The French words, shown first, have shared roots but no shared meaning with the English words that look just like them. Their meaning in English is given second:
•actuellement / at present, currently, nowadays
•car / coach, bus; van
•cave / cellar, basement; nightclub
•chef / boss, chief, leader
•déception / disappointment; disenchantment
•demander / to ask, to request, to require
•éventuellement / possibly
•génial(e) / inspired, fantastic, brilliant
•journée / day
•lecture / reading; reading matter
•librairie / bookshop; the book trade
•préservatif / condom, sheath
•prune / plum
•raisin / grape
•sympathiser / to get on well, hit it off
•veste / jacket
False cognates with some shared meanings
The French words in the following list have some overlap in meaning with English words that look the same, but also have additional meanings which are not shared. For example, French cabinet does share with English cabinet the government office sense, but has other meanings not shared with its English cognate. The extra meanings of the French words which are not shared with their English cognate are given after the + sign, on the right:
•agenda + diary
•cabinet + toilet; study; consulting room, surgery
•chauffeur + driver in general
•circulation + traffic
•décade + period of ten days
•dramatique + tragic
•éditer + to publish
•figure + face
•herbe + grass
•manifester + to demonstrate, to protest
•massif/massive + solid, robust
•parfum + flavour, aroma
•porc + pig; pig skin
•radio + x-ray
•route + road
•sensible + sensitive
•souvenir + memory, recollection
•sympathique + likeable, pleasant, friendly; attractive
Of course, it's doubtful that any of this will make that hapless British tourist feel any better about her mistake over the Hotel de Ville. She's probably going to be checking every word very, very carefully the next time she sets foot in France!
1. David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p46)
2. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p491)
by Diane Nicholls, editor of the Macmillan Dictionary Thesaurus
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