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List of false friends in French: The famous faux amis

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A false friend is a wolf in sheep’s clothing

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about “false friends” in language learning. When you start studying a new language, a word that’s familiar from somewhere else – in the simplest of cases, your native language – can look like a beam of light in the starless night: “that’s something I already know!”, you say with a smile. You think you understand.

Alas, not everything is what it seems. Enter false friends, deceivers of novice French learners: when you see the word rude in a French text, you think somebody’s been impolite. If you see pain, you’ll wince and empathize. Chair seems like a no-brainer: four legs, a seat and a backrest. But you’re mistaken – rude means “rough, tough”, pain is something you spread butter on in the morning, and you’d have a hard time sitting on a chair: it’s French for “flesh”.

This is not to say, however, that there aren’t plenty of words out there that look the same and have, in fact, the very same meaning in French. Look at this sentence, for example:

La ministre a un projet ambitieux pour l’économie de la région. = The minister has an ambitious plan for the region’s economy.

It’s easy to recognize the matching words: la ministre = minister, le projet = project/ plan, ambitieux = ambitious, la région = region, l’économie (f) = economy.

These pairs are common because even though English has Germanic roots, it has extensively borrowed words from Latin, the language French eventually evolved from. (French has also been influenced by Germanic languages, especially Old Frankish.)

In addition to that, the century of Norman rule (1066—1154) introduced a slew of Norman French words into the language.

As a result of all this, you’ll find a multitude of words that look similar or are even written the same in the two languages. This can often come in handy, like in interpreting the sentence above, but sometimes might throw you off the track considerably.

This is why your dictionary is a good friend. You can never be 100% sure these words mean exactly the same, even if they look like it. Checking stuff is the way to go!

Until you find a pair of false friends on your own, you can learn the ones featured on the following list – so that you won’t fall for them the next time you see them. Neat, right?

False friends in French: Nouns

A quick heads-up: In each row, we italicized French words to make it easier for you to determine which word belongs to which language. Hopefully, this will make it easier to keep track of that! False friend pairs do have a potential to make your head spin.

French word + its meaning in EnglishEnglish word + its meaning in French
appareil (m) = device, applianceapparel = vêtements (m plural)
chair (f) = flesh (of a living creature/ meat)chair = chaise (f)
chance (f) = luckchance (coincidence) = hasard (m)
coin (m) = corner, spot / here, in the area
(au coin de la rue = on the corner of the street
dans le coin = in the area)
coin = pièce (f) de monnaie, monnaie (f)
collège (m) = secondary school (for kids from the ages of 11 to 15)college = université (f)
déception (f) = disappointmentdeception = tromperie (f)
habit (m) = outfithabit = habitude (f)
librairie (f) = bookstorelibrary = bibliothèque (f)
location (f) = renting out, lettinglocation (e.g., of a hotel) = emplacement (m)
magasin (m) = storemagazine = magazine (m)
monnaie (f) = change, coinsmoney = argent (m)
pain (m) = breadpain = douleur (f)
patron (m), patronne (f) = most often: boss, employer (but also: a patron/benefactor)patron (a sponsor/benefactor) = patron (m), patronne (f) OR mécène (m)
photographe (f/m) = photographerphoto = photographie (f)
raisin (m) = grape/ grapesraisin = raisin (m) sec

Humeur (FR noun f) vs humour (FR noun m)

This is not exactly an example of false friends, but worth noting: these two words only differ in one letter, but that small change makes a whole lot of difference. Humeur (F) means “mood” and humour (F) is exactly what it seems: “humor” (EN), as in “sense of humor”.

False friends in French: Adjectives

French word + its meaning in EnglishEnglish word + its meaning in French
effectif, effective = real, true (note: a more obvious choice for “real” (EN) would be réel, réelle or véritable, as in “real leather”: cuir véritable.)effective (e.g., a vaccine) = efficace
formidable (positive) = terrific, greatformidable (negative) = redoutable, terrifiant
sale = dirtysale, sales = les soldes (m plural)
sensible = sensitive (e.g., viewers)sensible = sensé, raisonnable
Be sensible! = Sois raisonnable !
rude = rough, hard, toughrude = impoli

Need some help with French adjectives? We have just the thing. Check out our guide to different adjective forms!

False friends in French: Verbs

Verbs are especially easy to mix up. That’s because if you drop the -er ending from some French verbs, you often get a perfectly fine English word, and that provides fertile soil for deception. (By the way, “deceive” is in no way related to “décevoir”. The latter means “to disappoint”!)

French word + its meaning in EnglishEnglish word + its meaning in French
assister à qc = take part in sg, attend sgto assist sy = aider qn
blesser qn = to injure syto bless sy/sg = bénir qn/qc
demander qc à qn = to ask sy sg (a question), demander qc = to ask sy for sg (help, permission)to demand sg from sy = exiger qch de qn
disposer de qc = to have sg at one’s disposalto dispose of sg (to get rid of sg) = se débarrasser de qc
surveiller qc = to keep an eye on, to keep a watch onsurvey = mener une enquête (look carefully at = inspecter qc)
rester = stayto rest = se reposer
travailler = to workto travel = voyager

False friends in French: Adverbs

French word + its meaning in EnglishEnglish word + its meaning in French
éventuellement = possiblyeventually = finalement
actuellement = at presentactually = en réalité

Important: French words that can be false friends but not always are

Most online lists include word pairs that can indeed be false friends, but which do have matching meanings in some contexts. Learning false friend pairs, only to discover that they are not always that and in fact can mean the very same thing is not the best use of your time, to say the least. So I bring you:

Part-time false friends in French

Commander (FR) – to command?

Some books or websites designate commander (verb, FR) and “to command” (verb, EN) as a pair of false friends, but it’s not necessarily one. When you’re talking about commanding an army, using commander in French is perfectly fine.

However, it’s true that “to command” (EN) someone to do something is only commander (FR) in this same military sense or when someone has clear authority over someone else.

If you’d like to say “to order someone to do something”, you would rather use ordonner qn à faire qc (FR). However, ordering something (e.g., online) is not ordonner (FR) but commander qc (FR).

We’re in this for the challenge, right? (Or some weird people are, anyway.)

Délai (FR) – delay

Although délai (FR) means “time limit” or “waiting period” in most contexts, you can translate it as “delay” in the expression sans délai = “without delay”, “right away”.

un délai de trois semaines = a waiting/time period of three weeks (and not a three-week delay: that would be un retard de trois semaines.)

dans le délai fixé = within the (fixed) time limit

On doit résoudre ce problème sans délai. = We have to solve this problem immediately/ without delay.

Disposer de qc (FR) – to dispose of sg

Both disposer qc (verb, FR) and “dispose sg” (EN) can be used to mean “to arrange, to place sg” (even if the English expression is no longer widely used these days). Disposer de qc (FR) can also mean “to have at one’s disposal” (EN).

Same with disposer qn à qc: in English, that’s “to dispose (incline) sy to do sg”. Être disposé(e) à qc means “to be disposed/inclined to do sg”.

However, the French word cannot be used in the sense of “to dispose of/to get rid of sg”: that’s jeter qc (to throw sg out) or se débarrasser de qc (to get rid of sg).

Il a disposé des assiettes sur la table. = He disposed/arranged plates on the table.

Estimer (FR) – to estimate

Estimer (verb FR) means “to think highly of/ to respect sy”, and that has earned it a place in most French false friends lists. But in other contexts, it can very well mean “to estimate sg”, too.

Nous estimons les dégâts à quelques millions de livres. = We estimate the damages to reach a few million pounds.

la livre / la livre sterling (£) = pound

Ignorer (FR) – to ignore

If you’re looking for the expression “to ignore sy/sg” in French, you’re in luck: you can simply say ignorer (FR). It’s important to know, however, that this verb has an other meaning, too: “to not know sg”.

– Ils sont parti il y a combien de temps ? = How long ago did they leave?

– Je l’ignore. = I don’t know.

Relever (FR) – to relieve

In most contexts, relever qn/qc (verb, FR) will mean “to help up, to put back on its feet” (a person, a country, etc) or “to raise sg”.

However, it can also be used to say “to be relieved” or “to relieve someone” in the sense of “to free from a duty by providing a substitute/ acting as a substitute.” Relever also works when you mean “relieve sy from their duties”.

Le chauffeur a relevé son collègue. = The driver relieved his colleague.

La policière a été relevée de ses fonctions. = The policewoman has been relieved of her duties.

relever qn de ses fonctions = relieve sy from their function/post/duties (e.g. a commander, an officer, etc.)

Congratulations, you’ve just become a whole lot better at the French game!

Please let me surprise you with an extra cool cat picture for your time and effort:

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