Faux Amis – False Friends: False Cognates With English and French Words

What’s a “false friend?”

“False friends” are pairs of words in different languages which have similar spelling, so you assume they must have similar roots and meanings.  Well that assumption can sometimes be embarrassingly wrong.

Our total immersion into French culture and language has presented many opportunities to embarrass myself, thankfully not all of my assumptions made it past my lips in front of Tracy or folks on the street. I am still inching my way toward a basic working knowledge and fear there will be many more of these opportunities to embarrass myself with a “false friend.”

While many of these words may be well understood by anyone with a couple of years of high school French, I’ve posted below some of my more embarrassing/funny misunderstandings:

1.  La Mie de Pain

I assumed with the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey that this might be a S&M dungeon.  It’s actually a bakery whose name is “The Breadcrumbs.”  Pain is the French word for bread.

La Mie de Pain
La Mie de Pain

2. Hôtel de Police

A travel hotel exclusively for visiting police officers?  No, the local offices of the police department.

Hotel de Police
Hotel de Police

3.  Librairie

Rather than being a public library with books to lend to the pubic, this is a very comprehensive bookstore and stationery business.


4.  Menu

Where as in the US the menu is the brochure with a listing of meal offerings, menu in France is often posted on a notice board with a fixed-price meal of three or four courses: “Menu = Plat du jour (the plate of the day, the day’s special with meat and vegetable) + 1/4 vin (1/4 liter of the house wine) + desserte (dessert) + café (after meal espresso).”  Asking for a menu may result in the arrival of an unexpected meal.  The menu is also known as the formula.


5.  Entrée

This has got to mean the same thing, right?  We use the French word in the U.S.  However, entrée is France is not the main course, it is the starter course or appetizer.  The main course is the “plats principaux.


6.  Immobilier

I kept walking around and seeing Immobilier offices on every block of the business district.  My mind went to a “wheel boot,” a wheel clamp used to immobilize a car with excessive parking violations, but I couldn’t understand the need for so many offices.  A closer look revealed that these were real estate agencies (real estate = immobile property.)


7.  Lycées

Lycées in large buildings in residential areas are obviously not Asian lychee fruits.  Lycées are senior high schools for pupil 15 to 18 years old.  Lycée général and lycée technologiques normally lead to university study.   Lycée Professionnel leads to different kinds of vocational diplomas.


8.  Collège

 Collège in France is not post-secondary education.  It is junior high school for pupils from the ages of 11 to 14 years old.  These collégien and collégienne (boys and girls) are taught by a professeur.  Institutions of higher education in France are referred to as université and taught by professeurs des universités or a professeurs titulaire d’une chaire.


9. Defense

Rather than defense meaning “personal protection,” défense d’entrer means “no admittance!”

Défense d'Entrer
Défense d’Entrer

10. Cabinet

A cabinet is not a piece of furniture, but a business or professional practice like attorneys’ or doctors’ offices. Think about the term like the President’s cabinet.


In addition to the language faux paus I have also had the joy of trying to translate the operator’s manual for our clothes washer/dryer from French into English to sort out the directions on how to safely wash a load of laundry without ruining our minimized wardrobe.  I am fairly certain that I didn’t study that hard for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams.

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