What we refer to as false friends are words that look the same or are very similar in two languages but have different meanings. When you are learning another language, it can be very disconcerting and can lead to embarrassing or unpleasant situations.
When I first came to the UK, twenty-five years ago, my English was very basic. I could communicate but my vocabulary was limited. I was working as a care assistant in an old people’s home and one day during the morning briefing, the manager asked if anyone would volunteer to clean the commodes. Well, thinking like a French person, I thought:” That sound easy. I’ll do that!” and I put my hand up straight away. My colleagues were delighted but I started to think that maybe commode, did not mean a chest of drawers as in French, when they gave me a bucket, a pair of rubber gloves and some bleach! I soon realised my mistake and never volunteered to clean the toilet chairs again!
Many more words cause confusion for English speakers learning French. Some are easy to spot such as merci and mercy. I do not think that any native speaker thinks that someone is begging for clemency when they are thanking them and that the ‘pain quotidien’ is ‘daily pain’.
However, some false friends might be harder to spot. I have made a list of my favourite below, but there are hundreds more.
a costume (fancy dress) / un costume (suit)
a library (a place where you borrow books) / une librairie (bookshop)
rude (impolite) / rude (rough)
a partition (separation) / une partition (musical score)
a chef (cook) / un chef (boss)
a sale (monetary transaction) / sale (dirty)
a phrase (expression) / une phrase (sentence)
a route (itinerary) / une route (road)
a hazard (danger) / un hazard (chance)
an injury (wound) / une injure (insult)
a preservative (conservative) / un préservatif (condom)
I could go on and on with the list, but there are so many! Learning a foreign language is not an easy thing. It can lead to many misunderstanding and embarrassments, but we should not let it stop us. C’est la vie!