Faux Amis: 20 French False Friends to Watch Out For
Have you ever trusted blindly and gotten stabbed in the back?
I’m not talking about people—I’m talking about French vocabulary.
French and English share a complicated linguistic history, leaving us to juggle loads of faux amis (false friends).
Long story short, you have to be careful out there—but by learning these false cognates now you’ll save yourself from future confusion and embarrassment!
- What Are French False Friends (aka Faux Amis)?
- The Challenge of French False Cognates
- 20 Common French False Friends
- 1. Ancien /Ancient
- 2. Attendre /Attend
- 3. Bras /Bras
- 4. Brasserie /Brassiere
- 5. Blessé /Blessed
- 6. Bouton /Button
- 7. Monnaie /Money
- 8. Déception /Deception
- 9. Envie /Envy
- 10. Grand /Grand
- 11. Grappe /Grape
- 12. Joli /Jolly
- 13. Journée /Journey
- 14. Librairie /Library
- 15. Location /Location
- 16. Coin /Coin
- 17. Passer /Pass
- 18. Préservatif /Preservative
- 19. Prune /Prune
- 20. Raisin /Raisin
- How to Learn French Faux Amis
- And one more thing...
What Are French False Friends (aka Faux Amis)?
When French words look like English words, they really ought to mean the same thing, oughtn’t they? Often they do, fortunately, but some words don’t play fair. And those are the faux amis, which literally translates to “false friends.” These words can easily trick you into getting the wrong end of the stick, or to say something senseless or embarrassing that you hadn’t intended at all.
The Challenge of French False Cognates
False cognates are words that look identical in both languages but whose meanings differ. For the purposes of this blog, we’re also including “semi-false cognates” in our list of faux amis. Semi-false cognates are words that don’t look exactly the same, but they’re similar enough to invite confusion. An example of a French false cognate is the word grand . If you visit a grand city, you would expect to see impressive buildings since the English “grand” means it has a wow factor. But if you go to une grande ville expecting to be wowed, you’ll probably end up being disappointed instead. That’s because in French, the adjective grand / grande often simply means “big.” The town could be a dump, but if it’s big it could correctly be described as grande.
Semi-false cognates can set you up for disappointments too. For instance, you might fix up a blind date with une jolie fille , confidently looking forward to a fun evening with plenty of laughs. A jolly girl is sure to have a good sense of humor and be great company, even if she leaves something to be desired in the looks department. But since the French adjective joli does not mean jolly, but rather means “pretty,” you could be wrong on both counts. She’ll be drop-dead gorgeous, but she might turn out to be as miserable as sin and not crack a smile all evening. The consequences of being led astray by a false friend can range from being left feeling slightly puzzled, to suffering acute embarrassment when you see, from the other person’s reaction, that you’ve said something rather shocking.
20 Common French False Friends
1. Ancien /Ancient
Ancien can mean “ancient,” but more often it means “former.” It’s important to know that un ancien combattant means “an old soldier” in the sense of “a former soldier.” It doesn’t mean that he’s as old as Methuselah. Similarly, the ancien maire of a commune is the “former mayor,” who might still be a young man; your ancienne voiture is the car you used to own; and l’ancienne gare describes the former station building, probably converted to another use such as a house, a shop, or a café. A good rule of thumb is that if ancien comes before the noun, it usually means “former” rather than “ancient”/“old.”
2. Attendre /Attend
Attendre means “to wait for.” Je t’attends is one of the little phrases that boyfriends and girlfriends often text to each other when they’re spending time apart. They’re really saying “I’m waiting for you,” and not “I’m attending to you.” If you’re planning on romancing someone in French you’ll need to know this distinction (and learning these French romance words too wouldn’t hurt!).
3. Bras /Bras
Votre bras means “your arm,” the limb between your shoulder and your wrist. It has no connection whatsoever with female undergarments. The French word for “a bra” is un soutien-gorge .
4. Brasserie /Brassiere
Again, no connection with lingerie. Une brasserie is either “a brewery,” or “a bar” that serves meals.
5. Blessé /Blessed
Blesser means “to wound,” either emotionally or physically. So un enfant blessé is not a child that you are expected to kneel down and worship, but more likely a child that needs patching up with an antiseptic wipe and a bandage.
6. Bouton /Button
Bouton does indeed mean “button,” but you might be mystified to hear French teenagers complaining about their boutons . They’re actually worrying about their complexions, since un bouton also means “a pimple.” Teenspeak can often be baffling to the uninitiated, but these French slang words will help you keep up with le langage des ados (teenspeak).
7. Monnaie /Money
Monnaie means “loose change.” A person who gets to the checkout and says they have no monnaie is apologizing for not having the right change. You could easily have no monnaie, but plenty of money.
8. Déception /Deception
This is a sneaky faux ami. The verb decevoir , the noun déception , and the adjective déçu all have to do with being disappointed or disillusioned, and not actually deceived. This could lead to a fundamental misunderstanding if you think that somebody is accusing another person of deceiving them, rather than simply disappointing them.
9. Envie /Envy
You need to be careful with this one. The verb envier can be used in the sense of “to envy,” but the noun envie means “wish” or “desire.” You could say “J’ai envie d’une glace,” meaning “I want ice cream.” What you shouldn’t say is “J’ai envie de toi” if you mean “I envy you,” because what you would actually be saying is, “I want you.” Of course, if you listen to French pop music and watch French movies as part of your language learning strategy, you won’t fall into this trap because that particular phrase crops up very regularly whenever love and passion come into song lyrics or movie scripts.
10. Grand /Grand
Grand can mean “great” ( un grand écrivain is a great writer), but it can also simply mean “big.” When used to describe a person’s physical appearance, it means “tall.”
11. Grappe /Grape
Une grappe de raisins does indeed mean “a bunch of grapes,” but don’t get confused; grappe means “bunch.” You can also have une grappe de bananes without a grape in sight.
12. Joli /Jolly
Joli / Jolie means “pretty,” and is used to describe objects as well as people.
13. Journée /Journey
This is a very common false friend. Une journée is “a day,” so if somebody wishes you “bonne journée,” they are saying “have a nice day.” It doesn’t mean they think you’re going off on a journey.
14. Librairie /Library
This is another—often confused—faux amis. There is a book connection, but une librairie is where you go to buy a book, not to borrow one. It means a “bookshop” or “newsstand.” If you want “a library,” it is une bibliothèque , or these days, it’s often part of la médiathèque . Keep these differences in mind while hunting down your next French book for your language learning routine!
15. Location /Location
Location means “rental.” This can cause confusion because you often see advertisements describing “Les meilleures locations de vacances,” which looks as if it is saying “the best vacation locations.” It actually specifically means “the best holiday rentals,” so it’s all about accommodation for rent as opposed to places to visit.
16. Coin /Coin
Coin is the French word for “corner.” It has nothing whatsoever to do with the jingling money in your purse—those are pièces de monnaie . Dans le coin means “in the immediate neighborhood,” and “coin-coin” is what French ducks say instead of “quack quack”.
17. Passer /Pass
Passer un examen does not mean to pass an exam. Rather, it means “to take an exam.” So if a French friend who’s been learning to drive says “J’ai passé le code ce matin,” do not immediately start congratulating him or her on passing their driving test. You need to wait until they get their email or letter telling them the result before you start celebrating! “To pass,” in the English sense you’re probably more familiar with, is réussir .
18. Préservatif /Preservative
This one is possibly the most treacherous faux ami of all. Un préservatif is “a condom.” If you want a food preservative or wood preservative, do not ask for un préservatif!
19. Prune /Prune
You can’t trust words that describe fruits and their dried equivalents. Une prune is “a plum.” When you dry une prune to turn it into a prune, it becomes un pruneau .
20. Raisin /Raisin
Another tricky fruit to watch: un raisin is “a grape.” “Raisins” and “sultanas” are both called raisins secs , or dried grapes—which is logical because it’s what they are, but it does make for linguistic confusion.
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How to Learn French Faux Amis
French false friends can be a bit intimidating at first. However, making funny mistakes is just part of the learning process. Many of these silly slips ups tend to get a big laugh from native conversation partners. As you probably noticed, some mixed up words could cause a real scandal! The further you progress in your French language learning, the better you will come to know these common French false friends. Beware, though: there are plenty more out there!
The more you expose yourself to the French language, the more these faux amis will make themselves apparent—however, they’re not always immediately obvious unless you’re also able to see the English translation.
Resources which allow you to see both French and English are ideal for detecting them, such as books, audio transcripts and video subtitles that contain parallel text.
The best advice when learning French vocabulary is to not fret over possible mistakes—simply learn all you can, lighten up, and learn to laugh at yourself whenever this tricky language happens to trip you up!
Bonne chance !
And one more thing...
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