While French and English languages famously share a large portion of their vocabulary with each other due to common history and close relations, a lot of the vocabulary that is common to both languages has lived different lives and followed different semantic paths until their meanings ended up being completely different at times.
So here’s a little cheatsheet about some of the most common, and potentially most embarrassing, false friends in French and English, so that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot… too often.
Introduce ≠ introduire
Please don’t try to ‘introduire’ anyone in French, at least not in public. This only means ‘to insert’ and wouldn’t be received too well by somebody you’ve just met. Instead use ‘présenter’ – a much better way to make new friends.
Deception ≠ déception
You might indeed be disappointed to figure out that somebody tried to deceive you – which is a good way of remembering that the French word ‘déception’ means ‘disappointment’ while ‘deception’ is ‘tromperie’.
Exciting ≠ excitant
Such an expressive word in English, one that can be used in pretty much any situation that sparks your enthusiasm. But translating it in French by ‘excitant !’ is a mistake you don’t (always) want to make: it mainly describes something that stimulates your body and desires… in a rather sexual way. Same goes with the direct translation of ‘I’m so excited’, ‘je suis trop excité’ which will undoubtedly provoke giggling and sniggering.
Instead, you can express your excitement by saying ‘je me réjouis’ (‘I’m looking forward to it’) or ‘je suis impatient’ (‘I can’t wait’) and avoid all suggestiveness.
Actually ≠ actuellement
It is very tempting to use one for the other, given how similar they are. A classic mistake, especially given the (over-) use of the word in English, but actually, ‘actuellement’ means ‘currently’ and is not used as often as its English false friend. Instead, you can use ‘en fait’ (‘in fact’) or ‘en réalité’ (‘in reality’) to make sure you get your point across.
Preservatives ≠ préservatifs
You would never come across them in French food products ! And it’s not because they are purely fresh, but because the word ‘préservatifs’ means ‘condoms’ and I don’t know where you shop, but I’m sure that’s never OK, anywhere. Instead, you’ll find plenty of ‘conservateurs’ in processed food.
Eventually ≠ éventuellement
It seems like it’s too easy to be true to simply change an English word ending in -ly by a similar-sounding French word ending in -ment, and it is! Here again, the meaning of these two terms diverges quite significantly: ‘éventuellement’ means ‘potentially,’ and you’d have to use ‘finalement’ to say ‘eventually’.
Although you might feel nervous about mixing these up in French and being misunderstood, know that the traps are real for both sides of the pond. Here are a few other false friends that will probably help you understand some of the mistakes a French speaker might make in English:
Sensible ≠ sensible
I still make mistakes with these two and realise, often too late, that I may have sounded slightly off topic in some situations by using the English word with the French meaning. For example, whilst blubbing like a baby to the first scene of Bambi, I would say: ‘I’m a very sensible person, you know!’ – when what I really mean is that I’m just a ‘sensitive’ soul. If you want to say ‘sensible’ in French, use the word ‘raisonnable’.
Demand ≠ demander
Please don’t feel too offended if a French person wants to ‘demand you something’; the French verb ‘demander’ simply means ‘to ask’ and isn’t meant to be an imperative order. Unless it’s your boss, then, maybe.
Injure ≠ injure
It may be from the fact that insults can sometimes hurt more deeply than punches that these two words are such false-friends. Indeed, the word ‘injure’ in French means ‘insult’ while ‘an injure’ is ‘une blessure’ (which have nothing to do with ‘to bless?).
Envy ≠ envie
This one is pretty tricky. While the verb ‘envier’ has the same meaning as the English ‘to envy’, the noun ‘envie’ expresses a desire or a wish. In French, ‘j’ai envie de toi’ doesn’t mean ‘I envy you’ (‘je t’envie’), but rather ‘I want you’… so again, make sure this is said to the right person and not, let’s say, to your boss talking about their amazing holidays in the Seychelles.
Of course, making mistakes when learning a new language is a real mood-killer and can shake your confidence, but it is these differences and oddities that make speaking another language so enriching. So don’t be afraid of putting your foot in your mouth or leaving on ‘un malentendu’ (‘misunderstanding’), this is how we learn, and soon, you will laugh at the ‘sous-entendu’ (‘double entendre’) of some of these false-friends !