From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

From rude to mince: 21 French 'false friends' that look English
It's a real pain when you have to queue for the 'pain'. Photo: AFP
False friends alert! Spare yourself some embarrassment by checking that you know the true meaning of these English-looking words that mean something completely different in French.

The technical term for these (pardon our French) cunning little b*stards is false cognates although you will frequently hear people talk about faux amis (false friends) too.

Here are 20 that you will encounter on a daily basis in France, all with the capacity to throw you off balance a little, either while reading or speaking.

Chair – this doesn't refer to the piece of furniture you sit on – that's chaise – the French use it to say 'flesh'. One good example is chair de poule, meaning gooseflesh or goosebumps – J'en ai encore la chair de poule (I still have goosebumps).

Main – in English it's used as an adjective to mean the 'most important'. In French, it's the word for 'hand'. In the case of the cortical homunculus, the distorted representation of the human body based on neurological sensibility (below), his mains are his main attribute. 

Queue – when you're waiting in line in English you're in a queue, but in French it's a file.

The French do use faire la queue for “to queue” but on its own queue can also mean either “a tail” or a slang term for “penis”. So be careful you have the right one when you're explaining how long the line is.

Blouse – Quick history anecdote. If 'blouse' sounds French to you that's because it is. Its use is first recorded in English around the 1820s, referring to a loose, light upper body clothing garment.  But whereas in modern English it came to usually mean a woman's shirt (a chemisier in French) in France its usage is mainly to speak of overalls worn by workers, lab coats by scientists or surgical gowns by doctors. 

In fact les blouses blanches (the white coats) is often used as a synonym for medics as in this headline – Crise à l'hôpital: Les blouses blanches dans la rue ce vendredi pour un nouveau round –  Hospital crisis: Medics on the street again on Friday for another round. 

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See also on The Local:

Pain – It's not a synonym for 'agony' as it is English, it means 'bread' as you probably know. It does mean that you can make the philosophical pun below, though.


Emu – This has nothing to do with the bird but actually means “emotional” or “moving”. Je suis trés emu – I'm really moved

Four – In French four does not refer to the number between three and five (that's quatre). Un four is the kitchen appliance used to bake your pain – the oven. J'ai fait cuire le pain dans mon nouveau four – I cooked the bread in my new oven.

Pile – Pile means a 'mound' or 'haemorrhoid' in English but in French it actually refers to a 'battery'.  An example: Puis-je avoir deux piles? – Can I have two batteries?

Chat – the difference between a 'chat' with friends and a 'feline' lies in the silent 't' and a more “shh” sounding 'ch' in French.


Mince – In English it's the verb 'to chop up meat', the noun for chopped up meat, there's the saying ' don't mince your words' meaning to speak in a forceful way and mince can even be the verb for a 'stylised manner of walking'. The French keep it simple, using it just as an adjective for slim or slender, although you will also hear it as a family-friendly version of merde (shit).

Sensible – This is a potentially awkward one. How many times has a French person called you 'sensible' and you were secretly chuffed, when really they meant that you were 'sensitive'? Pourquoi es-tu toujours trop sensible? – Why are you always so sensitive?

Photo: David Pacey/Flickr

Baskets – In French this is a shortened version of 'basketball' used to refer to 'trainers' or 'sneakers', presumably because the sport's popularity in France came to be associated with the comfortable footwear that players wore. Nothing to do with the basket you put your laundry or your shopping in, that's a panier

Coin – Nope, it's got nothing to do with the loose change in your pocket, but rather refers to a 'corner' in French. J'habite au coin de la grande rue – I live on the corner of the big street. 

Court – It doesn't have anything to do with a tennis or basketball court in French, it just means 'short'. 

Spectacles – When a French person shouts Quel spectacle! they're not complimenting your old-fashioned glasses, they're referring to the incredible 'show' or 'theatre production' they've just watched. The spectacles you wear are called lunettes.

Natter – It's not a synonym for chat, in French it's the verb 'to braid' as in to plait hair.

Librairies – Here's an easy one to muddle up. Whereas in English 'libraries' are book repositories where you rent out printed work for free, in French it's the plural for 'bookshop'. So remember: library card at the bibliothèque and debit card at the librairie

Rude – The French may have a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for being a bit rude sometimes, but this isn't the word you're going to want to use with the next Paris waiter that grunts at you. In French, rude means 'harsh' or 'tough'. La vie est rude pour un étranger à Paris – life is tough for a foreigner in Paris. To refer to someone who's impolite say impoli or grossier.  

Tissu – In French this noun doesn't just refer to the 'tissue' you need to blow your nose with, this means all kinds of materials or fabric. So un magasin de tissus is what you would need if you were a dressmaker. If you need tissues for your head cold, try the pharmacy or the supermarket. 

Photo: Neil Ta/Flickr

Report – An important one to know about for professional matters. In French, report never refers to a study or investigation. It can actually mean a 'postponement'. Le juge a accepté un report de la date du procès – the judge accepted the postponement of the trial date. It can also mean the 'minutes' of a meeting . 

Ben – A confusing word for English speakers in France who are called Ben. In French it’s used as a spoken intermission to express hesitation or surprise, meaning everything from 'errr' to 'well' to 'hmmmm' and 'of course'.

It's pronounced more like 'bah' and is very commonly strewn around French sentences. Here are a couple of examples 

Et tu sais à quelle heure revient ton frère? – Ben, j'en sais rien – And do you know what time your brother got home? – Er, I don't know anything).

Et tu vas à l'anniversaire de Pascal samedi? – Ben oui! – And you're coming to Pascal's birthday on Saturday? – Of course!.



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