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Faux ami: 18 of the most annoying French 'false friends'

The Local France
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Faux ami: 18 of the most annoying French 'false friends'
(Photo by Lucas BARIOULET / AFP)

French is littered with pesky "false friends" that cause endless confusion and embarrassment for language-learners. Here are some of the most notorious.

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The false friends of the French language can be harmless, inconvenient, or downright embarrassing.

You've surely heard, for example, that préservatif doesn't mean "preservative" at all - and actually means condom. 

But there are numerous similar examples in the French language - here are 18 of the ones we find most irritating, feel free to share your pet hates in the comment box below.

1. Excited/Excité

You want to tell your French friend you’re very excited about something? "Excité" sounds like the word you should use, right? Unfortunately not. You just told your friend you were "aroused", probably not what you were going for.

Enthusiaste is better or you could also say "j'ai hâte" (I am looking forward to). 

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2. Jolly/Jolie

Beware with this one. If you want to refer to a jolly old woman as jolie then you're calling her pretty. Which, of course, she might be, but just make sure you're getting it right.

3. Chat/Chatte

If you want to say that you had a chat with someone, and do this by saying chat in a French accent (shatte) then congratulations, you've just used the slang word for a woman's private parts (chatte in French).

The French word for "to chat" is "bavarder". Un chat is of course a cat, but it's pronounced without the 't' sound - un-sha. 

READ MORE: A language expert’s top three tips for learning French

4. Apology/Apologie

So you’ve accidentally let out a loud burp at a French dinner party. Cringing of embarrassment, you quickly let out an “apologie”.

The only trouble is that in French, you’ve just told them that you “condone” or "justify" such table manners. "Pardon" and "excusez-moi" are both polite alternatives, or you can use toutes mes excuses (many apologies).

When public figures issue an apology after being caught doing or saying something offensive, they're usually described as having présenté des excuses - which is another faux ami because in English 'excuses' suggests they are trying to justify their behaviour, rather than say sorry for it.

5. Plus/Plus

What a deceptive little word. Depending on how you pronounce it, it can mean two opposite things - either "more" or "none".

Il y en a plus (pronouncing the 's') means there is more. Il n'y en a plus ('s' silent) means there isn't any left.

6. Bless/Blesser

The French verb blesser translates as injure while une blessure is an injury.

While a well-meaning English-speaker might feel the temptation to throw out a “blessez-vous” when someone sneezes, try not to, you've just told the person to go and injure themselves.

The expression to use here is à vos souhaits or à tes souhaits - literally translating as 'to your wishes' but in fact the traditional response when someone sneezes, the equivalent to the English 'bless you'.

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7. Chair/Chair

Looking for a chair at a party? Use the term "chaise".

"Chair" in French means flesh and you might get some weird looks if you tell the party hosts that you’re looking for some.

Meanwhile if you're on public transport and want to know if this seat is occupied, you would use the term siège (seat) or place.

8. Person/Personne

This also has two opposite meanings: no-one and someone.

Il y a une personne dans le café - There is one person in the coffee shop.

Il n'y a personne dans le café - There is no one in the coffee shop.

READ MORE: Revealed: The simple trick to get the gender of French nouns (mostly) right

9. Slip/Slip 

This one could easily get your knickers in a knot since “slip” in French translates into underwear, usually men's briefs.

If you’ve had a slip and you want to tell your French friends about it, better to use the verb glisser if you're describing a physical fall, while a 'slip-up' in the metaphorical sense would usually be un faux-pas or simply une erreur.

10. Pill/piles

You have a brutal headache and you head to the local pharmacy in search for pills to cure you, but asking for 'pills' will sound as if you’re asking for piles or batteries.

To avoid confusion (and to make sure you get rid of your headache), better to ask for brands like Aspirine or Doliprane but in fact a pill/tablet in French is une pilule or un comprimé. Just as in English la pilule - the pill - refers to the contraceptive pill.

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11. Library/Librarie

Ask for the librairie in France and you’ll be directed to a bookshop (where you have to pay) rather than a library (which is free). The word for library is bibliothèque.

12. Sensible/Sensible

Identical, right? Not so. Sensible means sensitive in French and it’s probably not the best word to use when describing yourself in a job interview. Try raisonnable or pratique instead.

In fact 'sensible' in the sense of being sensitive does exist in English too, it's just a very archaic usage. It was common in Jane Austen's time though, as referenced by the title of one of her best-selling books Sense and Sensibility. 

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13. Blanket/Blanquette

Don’t be surprised if, after asking your neighbour to lend you a blanquette, he or she turns up on your doorstep with a ready-cooked meal. Blanquette is a much-loved veal stew (Blanquette de veau) which has little to do with keeping you warm at night.

Une couverture will help you cover up if you need extra blankets on your bed.

14. Terrible/Terrible

This is a tough one, because although the word can have the same meaning in French as it has in English, it is often used to express just the opposite, ie that something is “great”. And it all depends on your tone of voice.

Your safest bet to convey that something is terrible in the anglophone sense of the word is to use the word “horrible”. 

15. Money/Monnaie

Monnaie does refer to money, but specifically to loose change.

So saying Je n'ai pas de monnaie doesn't mean that you have no money, it means that you don't have loose change or the correct change - you might say it with an apology if you're paying for a baguette but only have a €20 note.

Money in the more general sense is l'argent, while an alternative for loose change is pièces de monnaie or simply pièces.

16. Tongue/Tong(s)

This false friend will hardly get you into any trouble, but it sure could cause some confusion with almost any French listener who might wonder where exactly this conversation is going.

Tongue will most likely sound like “tongs” (pronounced with a silent s) which means thongs, or flip-flops. If you want to stick to discussing your tongue, say “langue”.  

17. Introduce/s’Introduire:

As if an introduction in France wasn’t a fraught experience already, one of the most two-faced of ‘false friends’ in French is the verb s’introduire.

Naturally, you would think it means ‘to introduce’. It actually means to penetrate, insert or enter. So next time you meet a group of French people and you want to suggest you should all introduce each other”, the verb you’re looking for is se présenter.

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18. Luxurious/luxurieux

And lastly, this one is particularly nasty because even though de luxe means luxury, as you would imagine, if you want to say “luxurious” don’t try to say it with a French accent, because it will probably come out as luxurieux which means lustful.

If you want to say “you went to a luxurious hotel at the weekend” your French guests might start thinking you spent the last few days at a swingers club. 

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