As I write this in early 2021, it seems unlikely I’ll be visiting France any time soon, more’s the pity. I really do love the place. I have very fond memories from my early childhood of holidays spent in various locations across the country, although mostly in the South, because my dad was a sun worshipper who – by a malign quirk of fate – happened to have been born in Glasgow.
We even had a prolonged nine-week holiday there once. My parents made a living by owning and running three hairdressing salons, and they were very hands-on with the business. There was never a day when they could simply put work time down and not think about it. My dad did the accounts, and when he was about 40 years old, he must have hit an early mid-life crisis, because he decided we should all just up sticks and spend mid-January to March one year in Cap d’Ail, a town on the Mediterranean coast. We stayed at a residential language school and while my parents were brushing up their French, I was put into the local primary school, which I loved.
Anyway, the point is, I have long had a fascination with the French language, so delightfully jolie à l’oreille as she is. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that one of the most fun things about the fact the French and English languages are such close cousins is that some words and expressions that seem superficially similar in both languages actually mean something completely different. I’m talking about les faux amis, the false friends.
des faux amis
Let’s start with a list of individual words and work up through phrases to the climax of the post, which is going to be an anecdote about my Uncle Tom making a critical error in a public lavatory in France as a young man. (Feel free to skip ahead, although I’ll be delighted if you stick with me for the whole post, of course.)
So, here are a few simple French words that look like English words but don’t mean the same thing, with the correct French translations of the English false friends alongside. Some you may know already, some may be unfamiliar:
|(pain = la douleur)
|(prune = le pruneau)
|(location = l’emplacement)
|(preservative = le conservateur)
|to witness/be present at
|(to assist = aider)
|(sensible = raisonnable)
|(actually = en fait)
|stew (often with veal)
|(blanket = la couverture)
|(eventually = finalement)
|(comprehensive = complet)
I could go on; there are hundreds of these. Even though I’ve been speaking French for years, I still happen across ones I’ve not seen before on a semi-regular basis. Even more confusingly, there are expressions in English that seem French but aren’t. A good example of this is double entendre, which I struggle to translate into French – if you’re aware of a good translation, I’d love to hear it.
The French, in their turn, have quite a few words in regular use that look English but aren’t. My favourite is probably the endearingly descriptive le relooking, which means makeover.
The British–Irish comedian Paul Taylor has carved out a successful career for himself in France as a native English speaker living in Paris who is apparently confounded and exasperated at every turn by the French and their ways. He has much to say on this particular subject. If – and ONLY if – you have a high tolerance for profanity and adult humour (you have been warned), you might like to check out this short video from his WTF France? series, which ran on Saturday nights on Canal Plus a few years ago. In it, he mostly takes the mickey out of French people for being relatively poor at speaking English, but he touches on false friends as well. (I feel moved to reassure the reader that Mr. Taylor’s French is actually very good indeed; he’s not just some angry Anglo blundering arrogantly and ignorantly into French culture. It’s an act.)
hands up who’s messed this up at least once?
Most native English speakers visiting France have, I think it’s fair to say, committed the occasional linguistic blunder. Have your French hosts blessed you with such a delicious meal that you’ve stuffed yourself and simply can’t manage another bite? Perhaps you remember from your school French that the word for full is plein, so in a spirit of polite gratitude, you say to your hosts “Je suis plein”.
You’ve just told them you’re pregnant. Or possibly drunk.
You should probably have gone with “j’ai trop mangé” or “je n’en peux plus”.
Perhaps you feel embarrassed when you realise your mistake, a flush comes to your cheeks, and you start to feel uncomfortably warm. “Je suis chaud,” you explain, as you remove your dinner jacket.
You become aware that your hosts are shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.
That’s because you have just declared yourself to be in a state of romantic arousal.
“J’ai chaud!” you hurriedly correct yourself. Your hosts visibly relax, a potential crisis is averted, and the entente cordiale safely resumes.
Which brings me to my Uncle Tom.
Many years ago, while on holiday in France, he found himself in need of toilet facilities while out and about during the day. Luckily for him, there was a public convenience close by, but it was in a state of some disrepair. On examining the available cubicle, he realised to his dismay that the lock was broken, and so he would simply have to conduct his business as quickly as possible and hope he was not interrupted.
Alas, it was not to be. As he heard the approaching footsteps of a stranger, it was with mounting horror that he realised he didn’t know how to say “there’s somebody here” in French. He racked his brains for a quick solution. How to say somebody in French? What about person? Yes … yes, he could manage that. Would that do? Time was of the essence. As he leant forwards and put his hand out in a state of humiliated agitation to try to stop the stranger opening the cubicle door, he blurted out “personne … est … ici!”
There was a puzzled and incredulous guffaw from the other side of the door, but after a few seconds, the stranger walked away. It wasn’t until much later that my uncle realised his mistake.
You see, personne can indeed mean person, but as the subject of a sentence, partnered with ne, it has a negative meaning. And of course, when the next word in the sentence is est, personne est can sound very much like personne n’est. So when that French stranger approached the cubicle door, what he actually heard, much to his amused surprise, was a panicked voice with a heavy Scottish accent yelling, shouting, absolutely insisting:
“THERE’S NOBODY HERE!”