Some lesser-known false friends

By Nicolas Gambardella

Everyone knows English-French “false friends” such as actually and actuellement, the second meaning “currently” while the first means “in reality”. But some false friends are rarer or subtler. Below are a few of them that a translator should worry about. I will update the list as I come across new ones.

Agenda versus agenda

In English, an agenda is either a list of things to be discussed or done, an ordre du jour in French, or a hidden plan. While in French, an agenda is the physical support on which to write down the things to be discussed or done, i.e., a diary.

Bigot versus bigot

In English, a bigot is a person extremely attached to an idea, and prejudice or even antagonistic with anyone who is not sharing this belief. In France, the term is reserved for religion, un bigot or une bigote being religious believers whose practice is extreme.

Dotting the i’s versus mettre les points sur les i

In English, dotting the i’s means to finish something to perfection. It is often used as part of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The French translation would be fignoler [un travail]. However, the French expression mettre les points sur les i means to be very clear with someone who is reluctant to understand. An English translation would be to set the record straight.

To address versus adresser

Like the English verb to address, the French verb adresser has many meanings, some of which are shared. “To address a letter” means “adresser une lettre”. “To address someone” means “s’adresser à quelque’un”. However, both also present specific meanings. So beware of false friends. “To address a problem or a question” is translated into “s’occuper d’un problème” or “répondre à une question”. To answer metaphysical questions, one can, in French, “s’adresser à la philosophie”, which in English is translated as “to turn to phylosophy”.

Deception versus déception

In English, a “deception” is a lie, a sham, an action aimed at misleading someone. This meaning has disappeared in French, where a “déception” is the feeling of sadness felt when a hope is not fulfilled. The English translation of “déception” is “disappointment”.

Accord versus accord

In the context of treatment, an accord in French is an assent in English (to give one’s assent). An accord in English is an adherence, a congruence of views with the person prescribing the treatment (opinions are accorded).

Cave versus cave

In French, la cave is a room in the basement, for example for storing wine, and is translated as cellar in English. In English, a cave is a hole in a rocky outcrop, translated as caverne or grotte in French.

Mental versus mental

In anatomy, the English adjective mental refers to the chin (from Latin mentum), as in “mental foramen”. In French, the correct adjective is mentonnier, mental referring to the Latin mens, the mind.

Crane versus crâne

The English crane corresponds to the French grue, whether it is the bird or the machine. The French crâne is translated as skull.

Lunatic versus lunatique

In English, a lunatic person is crazy (loony), while in French a lunatique is someone who changes their opinion on a whim.

Dramatic versus dramatique

In English, dramatic can mean “sudden and striking” and be very positive (e.g., a dramatic increase of cancer remissions). Using the French dramatique here would imply a tragedy with very negative consequences. The proper French translation is spectaculaire, “une augmentation spectaculaire des rémissions de cancer”.

Diaphoretic versus diaphorétique

Quite technical and subtle, but semantically and medically significant. The French adjective diaphorétique only means “that causes perspiration”, while the English adjective diaphoretic also means “perspiring excessively”, both for a person or a skin.

(medical) Adherence versus adhésion (thérapeutique)

In English, a patient’s adherence to treatment is careful compliance with the treatment regimen, including drug dosing, schedule, and other prescribed measures. It is translated by the French observance. While the French adhésion thérapeutique corresponds to the English concordance between the patient and the health care professional when the patient is on-board with the choice made and the decisions taken, and became an active participant in their treatment. Note that in French, adhésion and adhérence are used in different contexts.

To affect versus affecter

The English to affect, meaning to have an effect on something, is (should be) translated by influer sur. The French affecter means to adopt, to pretend if we are talking about a person’s attitude, and to present if we are talking about the features of a thing.

Fastidious versus fastidieux

In French, fastidieux has a negative overtone, describing something repetitive and boring. The English translation is tedious. On the contrary, in English, fastidious may have a positive overtone, describing someone who cares about accuracy and the details, corresponding to the French pointilleux.

legume versus légume

In English, a legume is a plant (or its fruit) belonging to the Leguminosae family, such as beans, peas, peanuts, or lentils. The French translation is légumineuse. In French, a légume is any garden plant cultivated for nutrition, corresponding to English vegetable. In French, a végétal is any plant, mushroom, or alga.

Vocable versus vocable

In English, a vocable is a non-word utterance, such as “la la la”, “Huh”, etc. Now let’s U-turn, in French, a vocable is a word or an expression with very precise, sometimes contextual, semantics.

Employee versus employé

In English, an employee is someone paid by someone else to work for them. In French, employés is a category of workers, whose work is not manual and who are not in a managing position. The correct French translation of employee is salarié.

Idiom versus idiome

In French, idiome means dialect. In English, idiom is an expression with a non-literal meaning. The French version of idiom is idiotisme. In English, idiotism is the condition to be an idiot.

Cricket versus criquet

The French translation of English cricket is grillon. The French criquet is translated into English by grasshopper. In fact, the French stole the English name to mistakenly name all insects of the suborder Caelifera. These are divided into locustes if they can form migrant populations and in sauteriaux if they cannot. Now, the interesting bit is that locuste is the latin name for sauterelle. Therefore, the French criquets are divided in sauteriaux and sauterelles!

Petulant versus pétulant

Petulant in English and pétulant in French have slightly different meanings. The once liberal democrat leader Jo Swinson was called petulant by a labour frontbencher. He meant it as bad-tempered, sulky. In French, pétulant means dynamic, full of energy, which is also what Jo Swinson was… perhaps a bit too much.

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