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
- Conscience (noun) = “awareness”
- Defendre (verb) = “to forbid”
- Expérience (noun) = “experiment”
- Intéresser (verb) = “involve, concern, affect”
- Moral (adjective) = “psychological”
- Perdre (verb) = “to destroy”
- Régime (masculine noun) = “diet; system, set of guiding practices”
- Regretter (verb) = “to long for, to miss”
- Unique = “only”
- Vice (masculine noun) = “fault, defect”
Conscience (noun) = “awareness”
Be advised! (For more on words you might think are related to morals, see the Moral below.)
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 ont 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.)
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.
Perdre (verb) = “to destroy”
The French verb 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 at play 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 of4 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 myrtles5 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.
Unique = “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, 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.”
Quotations illustrating this grammatical feature
Rome! l’unique objet de mon ressentiment!
Rome, only object of my rancor! – Camille, in Pierre de Corneille’s Horace (1640)