Keep your friends close, and your false friends even closer
As an English speaker learning French, it is always a relief to come across a familiar word and to be able to guess its meaning without having to trawl through a bilingual dictionary: restaurant, hôtel, accompagnement. The English equivalents haven’t strayed too far from the French words they derived from, so it’s simple to work out the English translation. However, don’t be tempted to leave your dictionary at home just yet …
There is also a group of wily words whose similarity to English could lull you into a false sense of security, but whose actual meanings are completely different to what you expect. These are what we call ‘false friends’. For English speakers learning French, this guileful group includes coin (corner), blesser (to wound), and, very aptly, déception (disappointment).
When formidable is good news
You need to be careful about what you sit on (chair translates into English as flesh), what you blow your nose on (tissu is in fact fabric), what you wear (veste is a jacket), and even what you eat (raisin translates as grape). And don’t fret if your new boss is described as formidable, this is in fact good news (it means great, terrific). Although no matter how terrific they are, your new boss is still unlikely to be happy when you ask to read their agenda (diary). And if you want to avoid a toe-curling moment, it’s also best not to start a conversation at lunch about the préservatifs in the food (a préservatif is in fact a condom).
When in Rome (and Madrid, and Florence…)
Of course French is not the only language which features these furtive false friends for English speakers. A libreria (bookshop) in Italy will not be happy if you take books away without paying for them and you could ruin a couple’s wedding day if you start pelting them with confetti (sugared almonds). In Spain, you could go round in circles asking for directions to a nearby dirección (address). You also need to watch out for disgustado (upset), éxito (success), and sensible (sensitive). And if you do end up being fooled by these false friends in Spanish, try to avoid muttering about your embarazo at the situation because you certainly will be embarrassed when you discover that the most common sense of this word is actually pregnancy.