An eager traveler in Paris walks into a restaurant.
He tells the waitress that he’s very excité to be experiencing the French lifestyle.
She grimaces in horror.
Fellow diners start laughing.
One, out of the kindness of her heart, recommends to the traveler some YouTube channels he should watch to improve his language skills.
Sadly, this incident did indeed happen to
me a friend.
He quickly learned that he was the victim of a false cognate (not to be confused with cognac).
The False Cognate: A Profile
A false cognate, sometimes known as a false friend, refers to a word that appears almost identical to another word in a different language, but in fact has a different meaning.
It’s kind of like when you ask your partner if they’re mad and they say “no” when they actually mean “yes.”
But I promise, there’s hope.
If you master the list below, you’ll be sure to avoid at least some of these mistakes, and before you know it, you’ll be chatting away on the phone, eating your heart out and navigating the French nightlife—all without once eliciting an awkward nod and blank stare, or worse, the get-me-out-of-here silence that most of us language learners are all too familiar with.
10 False French Cognates You Can Learn to Avoid Being Weird
What it looks like: Achieve
What it means: To finish, complete
If you want to be an overachiever in your French learning, instead use réaliser to indicate that you’ve fulfilled, carried out or achieved something. Use achever if you’ve completed something.
It’s a subtle but important distinction that, once mastered, will help you speak like a pro.
For example, if your Parisian friend says, “J’ai achevé mon roman,” she’s telling you that she finished her book. Comparatively, if she says, “J’ai réalisé mon rêve d’écrire un roman,” it means that she’s fulfilled her dream of writing a book.
What it looks like: Character (in a play)
What it means: Character (in the abstract sense)
As with the previous entry, this one is a bit of a ride. Caractère refers to the personality or temperament of a person or thing, such as in the phrase, “My friend has an honorable character.”
This word can also describe the charm or sense of an inanimate thing, such as a house. “La maison de votre voisin a beaucoup de caractère,” signifies that your neighbor’s house has a lot of character.
On the other hand, personnage refers to the characters in a play or performance.
What it looks like: Chair
What it means: Flesh
There are many accurate cognates related to French furniture, but chair is one of the few false ones. Since it translates to “flesh,” make sure you offer to get someone a chaise instead.
Plot twist: Chair should only be said when discussing human, fruit or miscellaneous flesh, but not meat. The correct term for meat is viande.
What it looks like: Consistent
What it means: Substantial, hearty or thick in consistency
Cohérent can mean both coherent and consistent, while consistant is typically found in the context of food, such as when saying, “J’ai mangé plusieurs repas consistants” (I ate many filling meals).
If you want to say that something is inconsistent, the natural opposites are pas cohérent and incohérent.
I hate this false cognate because it requires a bit of mental gymnastics and makes me feel like my skill level is inconsistent. Did you like my joke? No? Okay, on to the next.
What it looks like: Contemplate
What it means: Gaze for a long time
Envisager is the French equivalent of “contemplate,” but contempler signifies that you’re looking externally and not internally, so to speak. Therefore, if you’re in France and want to spend an evening staring into your lover’s eyes while you’re at a restaurant, use contempler. If you want to take some time to consider where to go out to eat, use envisager.
What it looks like: Demand
What it means: Ask
From personal experience, asking questions is one of the most daunting aspects of speaking a new language because it’s easy to come off as pushy or domineering. Use exiger if your intention is to demand or stipulate something. For example, “Cette recette exige un peu du sel” would mean “This recipe requires a little bit of salt.”
Une demande (a demand), however, has the same definition as its English counterpart.
What it looks like: Eventually
What it means: Might, possibly
This one is a doozy because we tend to associate “finally” with the end of something and “eventually” with the destination, not the journey. For example, it would be more normal to say “We’ll get there eventually” than “We’ll finally get there.”
With that spiel aside, finalement is the French equivalent of “eventually.” Try to process this sentence: “Elle joindra éventuellement le comité.” It’s strange for an English speaker, but the sentence indicates that a female person might join the committee, not that she eventually will.
It’s worth noting that finalement can also mean “finally” or “in the end.”
What it looks like: Excited
What it means: Sexually aroused
Warning: Don’t tell your French in-laws that you’re excité to meet them, because it indicates that you’re more than simply excited.
Instead, enthousiaste is perfectly sufficient for conveying your excitement, and it’ll spare you a scoff, or, depending on who you talk to, a smile.
What it looks like: Fortunate
What it means: Wealthy
If you want to tell someone they’re lucky, chanceux (to a man) or chanceuse (to a woman) is the way to go. Chanceux isn’t only an adjective, though—it can be used as a noun whose equivalent is “lucky devil.”
For example, if someone says, “Mon frère est arrivé comme un cheveu sur la soupe et notre mère n’était pas fâchée, quel chanceux,” the speaker is saying that his brother is a lucky devil because he arrived at the worst possible moment but his mom wasn’t angry.
It’s important to note, however, that fortuné means “wealthy” and fortune is the same thing as in English.
What it looks like: Habit
What it means: Live in, reside
Everyone has habits, but hopefully using false cognates won’t be one of them. Instead, get into the habit of using habitude when referring to people’s habits (I hope that was better than my “consistent” joke).
As an aside, many people tend to confuse habiter and s’habiller because they look alike, but the latter means “to get dressed.” A teacher once recommended remembering this distinction by keeping in mind that a habitat is where animals live, and habiter can therefore be associated with a home.
And alas, we’ve reached the end of the list.
Surmounting the obstacle of false cognates can be tough at first, but with a bit of diligent studying of the words above, you’ll be one step closer to conquering the French language.
myself my friend, I doubt he’ll be telling any waitresses that he’s excité anymore.
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