False Cognates are 'Faux Amis' Who Are Not Always Welcome

Words that look similar in French and English can mean different things

In English and Romance languages like French, many words have the same roots, they look identical or very similar, and they share the same meaning. That's a wonderful convenience to the student of either language.

However, there are also a great many faux amis ("false friends"), that are false cognates. These are words that look identical or similar in both languages, but they have completely different meanings—a pitfall for English-speaking students of French.

A Pitfall for Students

There are also "semi-false cognates": words that sometimes, but not always, share the same meaning as the similar-looking word in another language. Semi-false cognates are words that don’t look exactly the same, but they’re similar enough to cause confusion. 

The list of French-English false cognates below includes both false cognates and semi-false cognates, and the meaning of each word. To avoid confusion, we've added (F) for French and (E) for English to the titles. There are hundreds of false cognates between French and English. Here are few to get you started.

Faux Amis and Semi-Faux Amis

Ancien (F) vs. ancient (E)
Ancien (F) commonly means "former," as in l'ancien maire ("the former mayor"), although it can also mean "ancient" as in English in certain contexts that discuss, for instance, very old civilizations.

Attendre (F) vs. attend (E)
Attendre means "to wait for" and it's in one of the most common French phrases: Je t’attends (I'm waiting for you).

The English "attend," of course, though similar in appearance means to take part in or to go to some event, such as a meeting or a concert.

Bra (F) vs. bra (E)
The French bra (F) is a limb on the human body and the opposite of jambe ("leg"). A "bra" (E) in English is, of course, a female undergarment, but the French call this garment, appropriately, a support (un soutien-gorge).

Brasserie (F) vs. brassiere (E)
A French brasserie is an institution in France, a place, much like the British pub, where you'd find a bar that serves meals, or a brewery. No connection to the female undergarment in the English word "brassiere," of which "bra" is the abbreviated form.

Blessé (F) vs. Blessed (E)
If someone is blessé in France, they are wounded, emotionally or physically. This is far from the English "blessed," which can apply to a religious sacrament or just great luck.

Bouton (F) vs. button (E)
Bouton does mean button in French, as it does in English, but a French bouton can also refer to that bane of the teenage years: a pimple

Confection (F) vs. confection (E)
La confection (F) refers to the making or preparing of clothing, a device, a meal, and more. It can also refer to the clothing industry. An English confection (E) is a class of food that's sweet, something that's made in a bakery or candy shop.

Exposition (F) vs. exposition (E)
Une exposition (F) can refer to an exposition of facts, as well as to an exhibition or show, the aspect of a building, or exposure to heat or radiation. An English "exposition" is a commentary or or an essay developing a point of view.

Grand (F) vs. grand (E)
Grand is a very, very common French word for big, but there are times it refers to something or someone great, such as un grand homme or a grand-père.

 When it describes a person’s physical appearance, it means tall. "Grand" in English commonly refers to a special human being, thing, or place of notable achievement.

Implantation (F) vs. implantation (E)
Une implantation is the introduction or setting up of a new method or industry, a settlement, or a company's presence in a country or region. Medically, the French terms means implantation (of an organ or embryo). An English implantation is an implantation only in the sense of an introduction or setting up or in the medical sense.

Justesse (F) vs justice (E)
French justesse is all about exactness, accuracy, correctness, soundness, and the like. If something is juste, it is corect. The English "justice" refers to what we expect when the rule of law prevails: justice.

Librairie (F) vs. Library (E)
These two terms are often confused, and they are true faux amis.

Books are involved in both, but une librairie is where you go to purchase a book: a bookshop or newsstand. Your local library is une bibliothèque in France, or these days it may be part of a médiathèque. The English "library' is, of course, where you borrow books.

Location (F) vs. location (E) 
There are miles between these two meanings. A French location is a rental, and you'll often see ads for “les meilleures locations de vacances,” meaning “the best holiday rentals.” "Location" is the physical spot where something like a building lives, you know: location, location, location, which can be important in finding a French location.

Monnaie (F) vs. money (E)
Monnaie for the French is the loose change jingling in your pocket or weighing down your handbag. People at the checkout who say they have no monnaie don't have the right change. English money is all of it, both change and bills.

Vicieux (F) vs. vicious (E)
The French term vicieux (F) gives us pause because it's what you call someone perverted, depraved, or nasty. In English, the "vicious" person is brutal, but not quite so nasty as a vicieux in French.