On the other hand, the very similarity of the written forms can be a pitfall for the unwary translator. Hence the expression faux ami (false friend), meaning a French word that looks similar, even identically similar, to an English word, but has a different meaning.
In this file I am interested only in certain partial faux amis, that is, French words that sometimes mean the same as the similar English word, but sometimes, with special treacherousness, don’t. The message to take away is: however much you may want always to translate a given word the same way, with certain words, in certain circumstances, you cannot, without introducing unbearable barbarisms into your prose.
Table of Contents
moral (adjective) = “psychological”
One meaning of French moral is pretty much the same as our English “moral.”
- Dans le film la Cage aux folles (1978), l’un des personnages est le chef d’un parti politique qui s’appelle l’Union pour l’Ordre moral).
(In the 1978 film la Cage aux folles, one of the characters is the head of a political party called the Union for Moral Order.)
But its other usage means “the opposite of the physical or the outwardly visible” (when speaking of beings possessing an inside as well as an outside, in other words: humans); hence, “inner, inward, psychological.”
- (school exercise:) Prenez l’un des personnages du roman et décrivez-le; faites-en d’abord le portrait physique, ensuite le portrait moral.
(Take one of the characters of the novel and describe hurrim. Give first a physical description of the character, then a description of the character’s personality.)1
- « Ce sont des questions sur sa santé morale ou sa santé physique? »
(“Are they questions about her psychological health or her physical health?) —Une Visite médicale
The English word “moral” does not (currently) have such a meaning, with only a very few exceptions I can think of:
- “Moral certainty,” a technical expression used in philosophical or legal contexts, meaning “subjective or psychological certainty, as opposed to ‘objective’ certainty (based on scientific or logical demonstration), which subjective certainty is nevertheless sufficient for justifying action.”
- “Moral person,” another technical term, and itself apparently a calque of the French expression une personne morale, meaning a corporate entity having the legal rights and obligations of a person (in English more properly called a “legal person,” I gather).2
- “Moral support,” for which the French is (le) soutien moral; the meaning is “psychological” or “personal.”
The TLFi article (which I encourage you to consult) on moral (adjectif) has two main parts, A and B. B deals with the meaning corresponding to our “psychological, inward.” Corresponding to the meaning of English “moral” is A2. A1 deals with a meaning connected to that of les mœurs, for which see below. English “moral” can be used to translate moral A2, but not moral A1 or B.
Words Related to French moral and English “moral”
le moral (noun) = English “morale”
- Qu’est-ce que je peux faire, pour te remonter le moral? (What can I do to lift your spirits?)
- Ce que vous proposez aurait pour effet de détruire le moral des forces armées. (What you propose would have the effect of destroying the morale of our armed forces.)
la morale (noun) = English “morality, moral system; morals”
- « Oui, le mensonge et la vérité sur le même plan, jolie morale! » (“Right, lies and truth on the same level. That’s a fine moral system!”) —the Countess, in Journal d’un curé de campagne
- C’est un vieux traité de morale. (It’s an old moral treatise = treatise about morals.)
- Ce que vous proposez est contraire à la morale! (What you are proposing is contrary to good morals!)
la morale (noun) = English “moral” = moral lesson of a story
- C’est une belle histoire. Mais quelle en est la morale? (That’s a lovely story. But what’s the moral?)
You may also come across the word (la) moralité with this meaning.
les mœurs (feminine plural noun) = English ?
This noun can be tricky to translate. Les mœurs refers to (typical) human behavior, which can be good, bad, or indifferent, according to the case. When you’re dealing with either good mœurs or bad mœurs, then “morals” may do as a translation. But when mœurs is unqualified, “morals” is not likely to be a good equivalent.
- Cet usage, qu’on a d’abord trouvé choquant, a fini par entrer dans les mœurs. (This practice, which at first was found shocking, ended up becoming acceptable behavior.)
- Une comédie de mœurs. (A comedy of manners.)
If you are a fan of detective stories, you may want to know this expression:
Les mœurs3 = “the vice squad”
un moraliste (noun) = English ?
The French term moraliste means a writer, the most famous example being La Rochefoucauld, who describes human behavior in concise and brilliant fashion. With this literary genre we are halfway between the two main meanings of mœurs above: typical behavior, and good or bad behavior, because, while the moraliste attempts to describe human behavior as it really is, on the other hand this behavior usually turns out to be pitiable or deplorable.
There is no good English translation; our “moralist” implies someone who is far more prescriptivist than is usually the case with a French moraliste. A possible recourse is to leave the word in French, and to put it in italics.
régime (masculine noun) = “diet; system, set of guiding practices”
Our English word “regime” is a direct loan from the French (le) régime (itself from Latin regimen). However, although in the right context “regime” (or “government,” or “type of government”) may do as a translation for the French word, in many other cases it may not.
The most general meaning of the French word—other than in technological or scientific contexts—seems to be: a set of practices that guide and restrict a person, a community, an activity, or an institution, to the end of the continued (or improved) well-being or functioning of the said person, community, etc.
In the context of an individual person’s health, régime most frequently = English “diet”; occasionally it can include some other healthy practices, in which case English “regimen” (or indeed “regime”) may fit. Consider:
- un régime sans sel, un régime riche en graisse, un régime amaigrissant
(a salt-free diet, a fat-rich diet, a reduction diet)
- être au régime, suivre un régime (both: to be on a diet)
When an institution or a process is involved, “plan” or “system” may do best.
regretter (verb) = “to long for, to miss”
vice (masculine noun) = “fault, defect”
- Or, closer to the French: “then a psychological description.”
- See this blog post of Lawrence Solum.
- = la police (la brigade) des mœurs