What are "False Friends (faux amis)"?

There are lots of titles in Montaigne’s Essais, including “Des cannibales”, “Des coches”, and “De la vertu” but none called “Des faux amis”. Montaigne did write an essay called “De l’amitié”, but it is a reflection on the notion of friendship whereas “des faux amis” refers to words in two languages that look and sound the same, but have different meanings. An English-speaker might look at the sentence “On a attendu le concert avec enthousiasme” and think that people had enthusiastically attended a concert rather than waited for it. Similarly, an English-speaker might say “J’ai passé l’examen” to refer to having passed an exam, i.e., received a passing grade, rather than having taken the exam. Needless to say, being aware of faux amis is important in avoiding confusing situations and misunderstandings. We would not want to tell people that we would like to hurt our meals before eating them by using the word blesser, although a blessing before a meal can be quite nice.

10+ Common Faux Amis that You Should Know

Here are some faux amis in French and English, along with examples of their proper uses:

Verbs:        

1) achever – finish, complete

To say achieve in French, you could say parvenir à or toucher au bout.

French
English
On a achevé le projet. We finished the project.
Ils ont travaillé jour et nuit pour parvenir à un résultat satisfaisant. They worked day and night to achieve a satisfactory result.

2) assister – attend

To say assist in French, you could use the word aider.

French
English
Nous avons assisté au cours. We attended class.
Tu as aidé avec toutes les préparations pour la fête. You assisted with all of the preparations for the party.

3) attendre – wait

To say attend in French, you could use the word assister, as shown above.

French
English
Nous avons attendu l’autobus. We waited for the bus.
Elles ont assisté à la reunion. They attended the meeting.

4) blesser – hurt, harm

To say bless in French, you could use the word bénir.

French
English
Ces paroles peuvent gravement blesser quelqu’un. These words can seriously hurt someone.
Les agriculteurs dans cette région d’Afrique bénissent les pluies. The farmers in this region of Africa bless the rains.

5) embrasser – kiss

To say embrace in French, you could use the words serrer (dans les bras), prendre dans les bras, concevoir, saisir par la pensée, or englober. The last three refer to embracing in a figurative sense, as the word pensée in the penultimate example suggests. If the first two sound a bit complicated for talking about a hug, remember that the French are not so much into hugging. It is possible to use the word embrasser to describe the action of physically embracing someone, but this would be in a literary context. In French versification, the term rimes embrassées refers to an ABBA scheme, which follows this same idea.

French
English
Ils se sont embrassés. They kissed (each other).
Il l’a serré (dans ses bras). He hugged him.

6) passer – take, pass by

To say pass in the context of an examination or a class, you could use the word réussir. Passer is also used to describe physically passing something, as with people passing by in the street, or passing by a place.

French
English
Ils ont passé l’examen hier. They took the exam yesterday.
Ils ont réussi à l’examen. They passed the exam.

7) supplier – implore, beseech, entreat

To say supply in French, you can use the word fournir.

French
English
Ils avaient supplié les citoyens de ne pas oublier les principes initiaux de la proposition au moment de prendre leur décision. They had beseeched the citizens to not forget the original principles of the proposal when making their decision.
L’école avait fourni les uniformes scolaires. The school had supplied school uniforms.

Nouns

1) agrément – approval, assent

To say agreement in French, use the word accord.

French
English
On est plus ou moins sûr que les propositions recevront leur agrément. We are more or less certain that the proposals will receive their approval.
Ils se mettront d’accord pour examiner les actions des candidats. They will agree to examine the actions of the candidates.

2) apologie – justification, praise, glorification, apology

As we can see from the above definitions, the word apologie can take on a variety of meanings, reflecting its semantic development. Its uses include the English apology, which belies the categorization of apologie as a faux ami, but it is important to keep in mind its frequent uses as something with the opposite goal – to speak in praise of or to defend. Its use as justification or defense is related to the Latin term apologia, used in works such as Plato’s Apologia Socratis, which presents the speech of legal self-defense made by Socrates at his trial for moral corruption and impiety. Although this use of apologie often includes an admission of error, it seeks to justify actions or opinions rather than to apologize for them. Later uses, such as those of the Renaissance period, include the idea of praise as well as justification, which we see in Montaigne’s essay, the “Apologie de Raimond Sebond”, a piece intended to support the ideas expressed by the theologian Raimond Sebond in his 1487 Théologie naturelle. The essay does diverge from this intent, as is characteristic of Montaigne’s work.

To speak of an apology in French, you can use the word excuse, often appearing in the plural, excuses. To refer to the act of apologizing, you could use the word s’excuser.

French
English
L’apologie de l’amour a évoqué quelques thèmes trouvés dans le Banquet de Platon. The praise of love evoked some themes found in Plato’s Symposium.
Il a offert ses excuses après son arrivée tardive. He offered an apology after his late arrival.

3) journée – day

A journey in French is a voyage.

French
English
Bonne journée ! Have a nice day!
Bon voyage ! Have a nice journey!

4) librairie – bookstore

A library in French is a bibliothèque.

French
English
La nouvelle pièce de Yasmina Reza apparaîtra dans toutes les librairies de Paris. Yasmina Reza’s new play will appear in all the bookstores of Paris.
Je chercherai le Dictionnaire du Moyen ge à la bibliothèque universitaire. I will look for the Dictionary of the Middle Ages at the university library.

5) sentence – judgment, sentence, maxim

A sentence in French is a phrase. As you’ll notice in the above definitions, sentence is not entirely a faux ami, since, as in English, it is used in court, or in the context of judgment. It is, however, important to recognize that the word phrase is used in French for a set of words that is complete in itself, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command. We also use the word sentence in French for maxim or apophthegm (apothegm).

French
English
Cette sentence illustre bien l’importance de réfléchir avant de parler. This maxim illustrates well the importance of thinking before speaking.
Cette phrase clarifie tous les objectifs du comité. This sentence clarifies all of the committee’s goals.

6) affluent – tributary

Affluent in French is aisé. In English, we do have the archaic word affluent, which has the same meaning as the French, which appears, for example, in the naturalist John Muir’s essay “Summer Days at Mount Shasta” in his 1919 book Steep Trails: “Standing in a fringing thicket of purple spiraea in the immediate foreground is a smooth expanse of green meadow with its meandering stream, one of the smaller affluents of the Sacramento ...”

French
English
L’Oubangui est un affluent majeur du fleuve Congo. The Oubangui is a major affluent of the Congo River.
Cette famille aisé habite un bel appartement au centre de Paris. This affluent family lives in a beautiful apartment in the center of Paris.

Adjectives

1) actuelle, actuel – current, present, existent, prevailing, incumbent

For actual in French, you could say réelle, réel, effective, effective, concrète, concret, or véritable, and for actually, you could say en fait.

French
English
L’état actuel de notre économie entraînera une chute des ventes. The current state of our economy will result in a decline in sales.
L’impact réel sera un sujet de débat. The actual impact will be a subject of debate.

2) compréhensive, compréhensif – understanding, comprehensive

To say comprehensive in French, you can say complet or total.

French
English
Je n’hésite pas à en parler avec elle, car elle est très compréhensive et ne juge personne. I do not hesitate to discuss it with her, as she is very understanding and judges no one.
C’est une analyse complète de l’étymologie de ce mot. It’s a comprehensive analysis of the etymology of this word.

3) sensible – sensitive

To say sensible in French, you can say raisonnable.

French
English
On devrait être plus sensible à la musique de cette époque après l’avoir étudiée. One should be more sensitive to the music of this era after having studied it.
Une solution raisonnable serait de trouver un bon compromis. A sensible solution would be to find a good compromise.

4) éventuelle, éventuel – potential, possible, prospective

The difference in meaning between the English and the French is subtle, considering that in certain contexts you could use eventual to translate éventuelle, éventuel, but their uses in each language tend to be different. To say eventual in French, you could use the words final, finale or ultime.

French
English
Ils suivront les règles désignées par le comité pour évaluer la situation afin de prévenir tout conflit d’intérêts éventuel. They will follow the rules designated by the committee to evaluate the situation in order to prevent any potential conflict of interest.
Leur compromis final était l’aboutissement de longues négociations. Their eventual compromise was a result of lengthy negotiations.

As you can see, these faux amis look quite similar, can be easily mistaken for one another, and may even have common roots! And how in the world do we distinguish these from words that are cognates, which look, sound, and behave the same way in similar contexts? As with any words in a particular language, it is important to think directly in that language first, which will eliminate any confusion created by prior knowledge of another language. Of course, similarities between words in different languages can be quite interesting, in which case it could also be interesting to know about the background of these faux amis, how they developed, and how they may have changed within a language. In this case, knowing words in context is important, as is the case for all words, and encountering them often, either in conversation or in texts, creates a solid base for this contextual knowledge.


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