Half-False Friends: French Words of Two Meanings
Friends That May Turn on You Unexpectedly
One of the great advantages of French, for a native English-speaker who undertakes to learn it, is the fact that the two languages share a great deal of vocabulary.
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
- Accuser (verb) = “bring out, reveal, emphasize (show; show the ill effects of)”
- Conscience (noun) = “awareness”
- Convaincre (verb) = “to convict”
- Defendre (verb) = “to forbid”
- Expérience (noun) = “experiment”
- Intéresser (verb) = “involve, concern, affect”
- Malice (noun) = “irony, slyness; mischievousness”
- Moral (adjective) = “psychological”
- Perdre (verb) = “to destroy”
- Régime (masculine noun) = “diet; system, set of guiding practices”
- Regretter (verb) = “to long for, to miss”
- Surprendre (verb) = “discover unexpectedly, take by surprise, ambush, overhear”
- Unique (adjective) = “only”
- Vice (masculine noun) = “fault, defect”
Accuser (verb) = “bring out, reveal, emphasize (show; show the ill effects of)”
The French verb acccuser can mean exactly the same as English “to accuse” (= to blame someone publicly of an offense), but it can also be used to mean “reveal, show.”
Particularly in a visual context, it can mean to bring out a feature more emphatically:
- La lumière crue qui entrait par la fenêtre accusait encore ses traits. (The harsh light that entered through the window further emphasized the features of hizzer face.)
It can also mean to provide evidence of:
- Leur façon de parler accuse une origine méridionale. (Their manner of speech points to a southern origin.)
It can also mean to show a change:
- Votre portefeuille a accusé une légère baisse de valeur. (Your portfolio has / shown / suffered / a slight lowering of value.)
Meanwhile, in a medical context, it can mean to experience or show the effects of a sickness. Accuser le coup is a frequent expression the basic meaning of which is “to experience of the bad effects of something.”
- Les viniculteurs ont eu de mauvaises vendanges l’automne passé, mais ce n’est que maintenant que nous accusons le coup. (The winegrowers had poor harvests last autumn, but it’s only now that we’re feeling the effects of that.)
Lastly, an expression you may encounter in official communications, accuser réception de, means “to acknowledge receipt of.”
- Nous vous prions de bien vouloir nous accuser réception de ce paquet. (Please be so kind as to inform us when you have received this package.)
Conscience (noun) = “awareness”
The French word (la) conscience can mean our identically similar-looking English word “conscience” (meaning: moral conscience), but it also means (and this is the first meaning given in the TLFi):
Be advised! (For more on words you might think are related to morals, see the Moral below.)
Convaincre (verb) = “to convict”
Convaincre in most cases means “to convince,” but it can also mean “to convict.”
- Cet homme a été convaincu de meurtre. (This man has been convicted of murder.)
The TLFi entry for this word gives “to convict” as its A meaning and “to convince” as its B meaning. The B section is longer and has many more examples.
Defendre (verb) = “to forbid”
See this Language Topic: Verbs in -(d)re: défendre.
Expérience (noun) = “experiment”
The French noun une expérience in one of its main meanings covers exactly the same semantic ground as English “experience,” but its other chief meaning is “an experiment.” These are the A and B meanings given in the TLFi article.
- une expérience de physique, une expérience de chimie (a physics experiment, a chemistry experiment)
- Adèle et moi avons décidé de tenter l’expérience de vivre ensemble. (Adele and I have decided to try to experiment of living together.)
Although there is no French noun exactly like our English “experiment,” there is a French verb expérimenter, meaning: 1) “to discover through experience,” 2) “to conduct an experiment.” The adjective expérimenté referring to a person means: “experienced, seasoned.”
Intéresser (verb) = “involve, concern, affect”
The verb intéresser can certainly mean the same thing as English “to interest”:
- Cela m’intéresse. (That interests me.)
- Elle s’intéresse à tout ce qui a trait à la vie des animaux. (She is interested in everything related to the life of animals.)
But consider the use in the following examples:
- La nouvelle loi n’intéresse que les conducteurs de taxis. (The new law concerns only taxi drivers.)
- Pourquoi révéler à la marquise votre secret? Il ne l’intéresse pas. (Why tell the marquise your secret? It doesn’t involve her.)
- La balle a traversé son corps sans intéresser les poumons. (The bullet passed through hizzer body without injuring [involving] the lungs.)
Note this use of intéressant (connected to the meaning of the noun intérét as “self-interest”):
- Cette ligne aérienne offre des vols à des tarifs très intéressants. (This airline is offering flights at very advantageous prices.)
Malice (noun) = “irony, slyness; mischievousness”
French malice can mean much the same as English “malice,” that is, “evil intent.” But its meaning can also be much weaker and can even indicate something positive.
When children 1 are involved, the word can mean “(an act of) mischievousness.” The WordReference page for this word has only this usage in view. Here are some examples from this web page:
- Les enfants jouent et se font des malices. (The children play and play tricks on each other.)
- La malice de cet enfant est supérieure à la moyenne. (The mischievousness of this child is above the average.)
- Le 1er avril, les enfants collent des poissons dans les dos par malice. (On April 1st, children stick [paper!] fish on people’s backs out of playfulness.)
- un sac à malices (a little rascal; a bag of tricks)
When adults are in question, the mischief tends to involve communication, and the meaning can be something like “irony, sarcasm, joshing.” (I suppose even playful irony remains a bit ambiguous—there is an element of at least apparent ill will—which is why the word malice could be used in this connection in the first place.)
- La teléjournaliste demanda malicieusement si le ministre interdit allait répondre à la question cette année. (The lady reporter asked ironically if the dumbfounded secretary was going to answer the question this year.)
- Il nous salua gravement, les yeux pétillant de malice. (He greeted us solemnly, his eyes bright with irony/mischief/playfulness.)
- Vous ne voyez pas ce que je veux dire? C’est sans doute parce que vous êtes éblouis par ma logique, dit elle avec malice. (“You don’t see what I mean? No doubt that’s because you are dazzled by my logic,” she said sarcastically.)
Note that the adverbial avec malice, par malice can, depending on the context, mean either “sarcastically/ironically/mischievously/playfully” or “maliciously.” A similar variety of meanings applies to the adjective malicieux and the adverb malicieusement.
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.) 2
- « 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). 3
- “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 standard 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 mœurs 4 = “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.
Perdre (verb) = “to destroy”
(“Perdre” is not not similar to an English word, hence is not a “friend” of any kind [true, false, or half-false], but I include it here because of its second unexpected meaning.) The French verb perdre does exactly as its Classical Latin original, perdo perdĕre: it can mean either “to lose” or “to destroy.”
- perdre = “to lose”
- J’ai perdu mes clés. (I’ve lost my keys.)
- Estelle a perdu du poids. (Estelle has lost weight.)
- Il perd tout aux jeux. (He loses everything gambling.)
- perdre = “to destroy, ruin, be the downfall of” (the direct object is a person)
- Votre ambition vous perdra! (Your ambition will be your downfall!)
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”
This verb can mean either:
- “to feel bad about something you have done and wish you hadn’t,” in other words, the same as our English “to regret”;
- “to feel bad about something you don’t have anymore but wish you still did” = “to long for, to miss.”
The second meaning is present in this example:
« Oh! qu’est-ce donc que l’amour, s’il nous fait regretter jusqu’aux dangers auxquels il nous expose…? » (“Oh, what then is love, if it makes us long for the very dangers it exposes us to…?”) –Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses, Letter CXXIV
Both meanings seem to be at play in a line from Ronsard’s very famous sonnet “Quand vous serez bien vieille”:
|Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.
|When you are very old, in the evening, with candle lit,
Sitting next to the fire, unwinding (yarn) and spinning,
You will say, singing my verses, whilst marveling:
“Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was fair.”
|Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.
|Then you will not have a servant hearing such a new tale,
Already half-dozing beneath the task,
Who at the sound of my my name should not start up,
Blessing your name of 5 immortal praise.
|Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
|I will be beneath the earth, and a boneless ghost
By the shading myrtles 6 I will take my rest:
You will be an old hag crouching at the hearth,
|Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
|Wishing you still had my love, and regretting your proud disdain.
Live, if you trust me, don’t wait for tomorrow:
Pluck starting today the roses of life.
Surprendre (verb) = “discover unexpectedly, take by surprise, ambush, overhear”
In contemporary English “to surprise” has the principal meaning to cause mild astonishment by revealing something unexpected (as when one gives a surprise birthday party). The French verb surprendre can have this meaning (see A2 in the TLFi entry), but it has plenty of others, all derived from the basic meaning of: “to come upon by surprise” (and the surprise can be on either party’s part). Consider the following:
- to come upon unexpectedly (and the other party wishes you hadn’t)
- to take by surprise = to ambush
- On nous a surpris au défilé. (They / ambushed us / took us by surprise / at the defile.)
- Il a surpris l’animal sommeillant dans sa tanière. (He took the animal by surprise 8 while it was dozing in its den.)
- Elle aurait sans doute répondu à cette lettre, mais la mort l’a surprise. (She would no doubt have answered this letter, but death prevented her [took her by surprise].)
- to discover (something that you didn’t expect or weren’t meant to know)
- Estelle essayait de me cacher son sentiment, mais j’ai surpris une larme à son œil. (Estelle tried to hide her feeling from me, but I spotted a tear in her eye.)
- Pierre lui surprit une animosité haineuse à son égard. (Pierre discovered in hurrim a hateful animosity with regard to him.)
- Quelle n’était pas la colère du mari quand il surprit une lettre que sa femme écrivait à son amant! (What was not the husbands wrath when he came upon a letter that his wife was writing to her lover!)
- to overhear
- Ce matin, lorsque je faisais des emplettes, j’ai surpris une vive conversation au sujet de de nos mésaventures. (This morning, while I was doing some shopping, I overheard a lively conversation about our misadventures.)
Unique (adjective) = “only”
This adjective can have much the same meaning as our English word, meaning “the only one o its kind” or “outstanding in its kind through its excellence.”
- Ce diamant est unique au monde. (This diamond is the only one of its kind [= unique in all the world].)
However, it can and often does simply mean “only, single,” implying that others of the same kind are at least logically possible.
- Rogrique est le fils unique de Dom Diègue. (Rodrigo is the only son of Don Diego.)
- J’étais enfant unique. (I was an only child.)
- une rue à sens unique (a one-way street)
- un marché unique; une monnaie unique (a single market; a single currency)
- « Rome! l’unique objet de mon ressentiment! » (Rome, the sole object of my anger!)–Camille, in Corneille’s Horace (4.5)
Meanwhile, the adverb uniquement is more like a true false friend (††† !); do not translate it as “uniquely.” It very often means “only, merely,” and is the equivalent of seulement and ne…que; occasionally it has the slightly stronger force of “strictly, exclusively.”
- Si je te pardonne, c’est uniquement à cause de ta jeunesse. (If I forgive you, it’s only on account of your youth.)
Vice (masculine noun) = “fault, defect”
The French word can have the same meaning as English “vice” (= opposite of virtue, etc.), but also, particularly in combination with certain other words, can mean “a defect serious enough to impede a thing from being or doing what it is supposed to be or do.”
- vice de construction
- Nowadays, generally: “a building defect” (cf. vice de fabrication)
- Back when people still knew Aristotelian logic: “a fault in the construction of a syllogism”
- vice de forme, vice de procédure (irregularity invalidating a procedure)
- or child-like adults↩
- Or, closer to the French: “then a psychological description.”↩
- See this blog post of Lawrence Solum.↩
- = la police (la brigade) des mœurs↩
- OR: with↩
- Literally: “by the myrtle-y shades.”↩
- Or: I caught him.↩↩
- and no doubt killed it↩
Quotations illustrating this grammatical feature
Rome! l’unique objet de mon ressentiment!Camille, in Pierre de Corneille’s Horace (1640)
Rome, only object of my rancor!
Eric Dawson says
Très intéressant et utile,merci mille fois