False cognates, false friends, faux amis. You might have heard of these terms, but what exactly do they mean? Simply put, a French false cognate is a word that looks or sounds similar to an English word, but has a completely different meaning.
Confused? We’re here to help! We’ve put together a list of the 15 most common false friends in French and English so that you can better express yourself — and avoid any embarrassing faux pas — when speaking French.
The French verb attendre looks like the English “attend.” In French, it means “to wait” or “to expect.” This one can be a bit confusing because “attend” has a number of different meanings in English, but the most common ones (e.g. “to be present at” or “to deal with”) don’t mean quite the same thing as in French.
So, why is it important to know this faux ami between English and French? Because the French often use this verb to describe women who are pregnant and expecting a baby (attendre un enfant)!
French is a secular country, so you might be surprised to hear the word blessé used fairly often. In actual fact, this French word means “hurt.” “Blessed” in the religious sense would be translated as béni.
Bouton is an interesting French false cognate, because one of its meanings is indeed “button” — as is the case in English. But this word also has another meaning: “spots.” So don’t be too confused the next time you hear your friend complaining about boutons on her face.
If you’re at a gym in France and the fitness instructor asks you to raise your bras, don’t panic! This is simply the French word for “arms.” The French word for an actual bra is soutien-gorge, which is good to know if you love all things French fashion.
Many people in France love to have a chat with friends over drinks. They just tend not to call it that. To describe an exchange of casual chatter, you should use the word bavarder instead. The French word chat is a false friend with its English counterpart because it actually means “cat.”
For any snack lovers out there, this is important: Chips in French are actually potato chips! The French word for chips, as in “French fries,” is frites. This will come in handy the next time you’re ordering food in a restaurant or from a street vendor.
This French false cognate can definitely cause some confusion among language learners. In the United States, a college is a four-year educational institution you attend after finishing high school. In France, collège is the school you attend from the ages of 11 to 15, roughly. After that, students attend lycée until graduating at 18.
This faux ami in French and English could cause quite a stir. Embrasser is the French verb for “kiss” — quite a different way to show affection in some parts of the world than a friendly hug!
Journée is probably one of the first words you’ll learn as a beginner in French.It means “day.” This is a great example of a French false cognate because it doesn’t have the same meaning as the English word “journey,” though you might say that the earth takes a journey around the sun every day. To describe a trip of this kind in French, you’re better off calling it a voyage.
This faux ami in French and English is an important one for book lovers. Since it’s especially confusing for some, here’s a small table to clarify things.
If you’re in the unfortunate situation of having to visit a doctor in France, make sure you understand this false friend in French and English. Pain in French means “bread,” whereas the word for “something that hurts” is douleur.
When your French friend uses the phrase passer un examen, don’t start jumping for joy and congratulating them. The verb passer means “to sit” or “to take” rather than “to pass an exam.” Hopefully your friend will do well — but they don’t have their results just yet.
This French false cognate is a favorite among French language learners because it can easily cause many hilarious misunderstandings. While the English word refers to a substance or chemical added to food to increase its shelf life, the French word préservatif is a condom!
After your friend a passé un examen (see above), you might be confused if they tell you later that they a raté un examen. This does not mean that they rated or graded an exam. Rater is a French verb that means “to fail.” In other contexts, it also means “to miss” (e.g. rater le bus).
Our last false friend in French is sensible. This French word most closely translates to “sensitive” in English. If you want to describe someone who’s reasonable or has a good head on their shoulders, use raisonnable.
Clear as mud
As you can see, French false cognates can be quite confusing. We hope this article has clarified a few of the most common ones and helped you to understand that everything is not always what it seems.. But even if you do use the incorrect word every once in a while, don’t worry — it’s always sure to give a native French speaker a good laugh!