BEFRIENDING THE “FAUX AMIS”

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If a French person ever tells you: “I will appeal you as soon as I can”, it may take you a few seconds, but eventually you’ll understand that it’s not about making you think he/she is attractive. Rather, he/she is the victim of a “faux ami”.

“Appeal” looks very much like “appelle”, the conjugated form of the French verb “appeler” which means “to call”.

Why such a resemblance when the meanings are so different? Well, in this particular case, “appeal” can also mean “call”, as in “appeal for help”. So the two verbs “appeal” in English and “appeler” in French are actually not that far removed, they do have a common origin and they share some meanings.

That’s how “faux amis” work. They are words with a similar or identical form but with partially or totally different meanings in each language. They are called “faux amis” (false friends) because they trick you into using words that look very much like those you know in your own language, when actually they don’t mean the same thing at all. This can leave you in a situation where you are either not understood, or perceived as a very old fashioned speaker who uses words from another era. “Faux amis” are actually old friends, very old sometimes. So old that most people today don’t know about their former closeness. If you look at them closely, you will discover how they are etymologically connected.

Take the example “library” in English and “librairie” in French. In medieval French and until the 16th century, the French word « librairie » actually meant “library” (“bibliothèque” in today’s French). The meaning then evolved to that it has today (“bookstore”) because of the influence of the same period word “libraire” , a bookseller.

There are different stages in the evolution of words and sometimes a language will keep a meaning (English kept the meaning of the initial “librairie”), when another language won’t. That’s how “faux amis” arise.

Sometimes “faux amis” can create uncomfortable situations.
In a French administrative form, you would never find the French word “femelle” (“female” in English) to refer to the female gender. You would find “féminin”. It is considered rather pejorative and rude to use “femelle” when referring to a woman or a girl in French. “Femelle” is used only for animals.

Nevertheless, if we look back in time and search for the etymology of those two words, we find that both words come from the same word in Latin “femella” which meant “young woman, girl,” and was the diminutive of “femina” “woman”.

The meaning was then extended to « females of other animals ».
When in English the word kept its first meaning along with the second one, this first meaning disappeared in French, where we have “femme” for “woman”.

Let’s finish with “faux amis” game!

Here are some examples of sentences a French person learning English could say. Can you find the “faux amis”?:

1) It’s rather fresh this morning!
2) In the past, a girl had to bring a dot to get married
3) I supply you to listen to me!

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