Ahh, false friends: the bane of any languages student’s life – as well as being rather annoying for translators and travellers alike. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of a language, you come across a word that looks exactly like an English word. Brilliant, you think – and then, you find out later, that it wasn’t at all the word that you thought it was.
Mixing up words when abroad is a common occurrence – and can be a source of both embarrassment and hilarity. My mother loves to recount the time that she asked for a legume (vegetable) rather than matches when on holiday in Paris. She also wished “Bon noir” to a doorman (who was black), instead of bonne nuit. Needless to say, we don’t go on holiday together any more.
You can find examples of French false friends, or faux amis, all over the internet – but I got the idea for doing these ones after translating a big tourism brochure, which was full of them! It’s a great idea for companies and businesses in touristy areas to get their marketing material professionally translated into other languages (for the reasons neatly outlined in fellow translator Hannah Keet’s blog post), but if you find yourself facing the challenge of reading up on local tourism activities in French, then look out for these deceptive terms…
I’ll throw all the money-related ones in together. Monnaie means currency and change (as in, “I don’t have any change”), but cannot be used to talk about money in general (that would be argent). This means that change in French doesn’t mean “change,” but exchange (as in the Bureau de change). Finally coin means corner, not “coin.” “Coin” in French is pièce. Oh man, I think we’re going to be here all night! Let’s move on…
Watch out for brochures offering forfaits-cures: they are not offering some kind of forfeit or cure (which sounds terrifying), but rather are offering a spa or beauty therapy package deal. Even better!
Not to be mixed up with “journey,” journée actually means day, so an activity advertised as “1/2 journée” is a half-day activity. And “journey” in French is voyage, which is at least a word that both looks English and means nearly the same thing!
Nope, not location – it means rental. So, just for extra confusion, location de materiel is not, of course, the location of material, but rather “equipment rental.” See, it all makes sense really…!
Wondering why all of these holiday activities require so many computer screens? They are actually offering an instructor – which is probably more helpful for some of those extreme/active sports.
Okay, this one does mean modelling in some contexts, but can also mean sculpting, or a type of massage. Maybe double check which one you’re signing up to!
If a company is asking you to get in touch with them par mail, don’t run to the post office yet: they mean by e-mail. For traditional snail mail, the French use the word courrier.
Roman, you say? Actually, Roman in French is Romain – and Roman in English is Romanesque, which came after the Ancient Roman era. Obviously.
You may remember from learning French at school that the train station in French is la gare. La station, on the other hand, can be a metro station, or a holiday, ski or spa resort.
Surf can be either surfing or snowboarding, just to keep you on your toes. Fun fact: the French word glisse covers any of kind of sport that features a board – skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing…anything that involves some kind of sliding motion!
So there you have it…clear as onion soup! There’s no easy way to learn false friends, except through repeated trial and error of trying to use them. That said, there’s no shame in getting it wrong – everyone has their own hilarious miscommunication story to tell!
There are hundreds of false friends in French, so if you know of any more that are useful to know while travelling (or you have a good story to share), let me know in the comments!